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As Auston Matthews heads to the Leafs, Toronto and Buffalo could be bitter rivals again

TORONTO – Legends Row, a collection of Toronto Maple Leafs greats cast in bronze for all time, sits outside Air Canada Centre. It starts on one end with modern giant Mats Sundin and moves to ’70s heroes Borje Salming and a hopping-the-boards Darryl Sittler, the owner of the NHL’s only 10-point game.

Then it’s on to oldtimers like Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps and George Armstrong before finishing with legendary goalie Johnny Bower. Dave Keon, Turk Broda and Tim Horton will be added this fall. Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour might join them someday.

Friday night in First Niagara Center, a new hero will be turned over to the Leafs.

The hope is that 18-year-old Auston Matthews will be the face of the franchise for a decade or more, and maybe even join The Row himself some day. Matthews, the Arizonan who played professionally this year in Switzerland, could single-handedly rekindle the Buffalo Sabres’ lukewarm rivalry with Toronto – but he could also impede Buffalo’s chances to rise in the Atlantic Division and ultimately compete for the Stanley Cup.

Visitors to Legends Row routinely strike poses for pictures with the greats. Most, of course, are Leafs fans. Still, others are drawn by Matthews and the possibilities he brings to the site of his soon-to-be home.

“He’s a great player, and it’s very good for him to play here,” said Robert Raab, a tourist from Langenthal, Switzerland, who said he saw Matthews play live four times this season back home.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs are going up,” Raab said. “Here in Toronto, all people talk about hockey, and they know him anywhere you go. It’s not going to be easy for him to play in this city, but for Toronto, it’s good.”

Matthews will become the first American-born No. 1 NHL draft pick since South Buffalo’s Patrick Kane went to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007. How has that turned out? A Chicago team that had gone 49 years without a Cup finally won one in 2010 on Kane’s Game Six overtime goal in Philadelphia and has added two more since.

The Leafs just finished their 49th straight year without a Cup, and the 2016-17 season will mark the franchise’s centennial as well as 50 years since their last championship – the longest drought in the NHL for teams that have won at least one.

“The last 10 years, it was one step forward and two steps back, and I got tired of it,” said John Calabro of Toronto, who had his wife photograph him hugging the Sittler statue. Calabro said he hardly watched a Leafs game on television last season.

“Matthews could get me back,” he said. “But I want to see them play with heart and see them go in a different direction.”

Matthews was by far the star attraction when he came to HarborCenter for the annual NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month. Sportsnet, the national Canadian network with rights to NHL broadcasts, tweeted it was going live to the testing floor in Buffalo to show all of Matthews’ workouts.

Matthews’ Wingate bike test was swarmed by reporters shooting iPhone video and television cameramen zooming in on every pedal rotation.

Cracked one veteran Toronto scribe: “That might be the most famous bike ride in Toronto history.”

Villain in waiting?

The Leafs and Sabres are following similar paths in their rebuilding. They tanked to the bottom of the standings for top choices, to the derision of many other teams in the league, and then retooled with former Stanley Cup-winning coaches Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma, respectively.

The hopes of Sabres fans everywhere are on the broad shoulders of Jack Eichel. But it’s a lot to ask an 18- or 19-year-old to rescue a downtrodden franchise on his own. Matthews doesn’t view himself as some kind of savior. He will join fellow newbies Mitch Marner and William Nylander atop the Leafs’ prospect corps.

“You try to block that kind of stuff out,” Matthews said at the combine. “You focus on yourself and the team getting better every day.”

Buffalo will forever have a place in his career history. It was where he took part in the combine and where he will get his first Leafs sweater. But after that, Matthews could be rated as the biggest villain by Buffalo’s hockey fans. He could well become a nemesis to Eichel in the regular season and maybe someday, the playoffs.

They’ll be teammates for Team North America at the World Cup in September, but it’s on − really on − from that point.

“I don’t know about that,” Matthews said with a nervous laugh when posed with the most-hated-Leaf-in-Buffalo scenario. “I guess we’ll see what happens. I guess that wouldn’t be too bad of a thing. That potential (of being Eichel’s chief rival) would be awesome. He’s a great player. It would be pretty cool.”

There’s full expectation Matthews will become the No. 1 center the Leafs have lacked since Sundin and their highest-rated center from the draft since Sittler was taken in 1970. Matthews was a standout in Switzerland, with 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games, and his nine points for Team USA at the World Championships tied Brian Leetch’s record for an under-19 player.

How badly do the Leafs need offense? Nazem Kadri paced them last season with 45 points, their lowest team-high total since 1957.

“It’s such an interesting time in the league right now because kids at young ages are impressing you more and more,” said former Sabres player and longtime broadcast analyst Rob Ray. “You’re almost expecting them to do well now. There’s going to be no growing pains. These kids are mature, big, fast. They’re so far ahead of where we were at 18.

“If somebody played in the league at 18 back then it was like, ‘Oh, My God. He’s an all-star, a Hall of Famer.’ Now, if you don’t have that kid in your lineup, it’s almost like you failed with your draft. It’s quite a difference.”

Making a rivalry

Folks in Toronto will say their top rival is either Montreal or Ottawa, not Buffalo. Sabres fans will list the Leafs, in part because they’re constantly dealing with their, ahem, juiced-up fans coming across the border and piling into First Niagara Center for every matchup.

“In terms of hatred, nothing matches the Ottawa Senators, in terms of fistfights and everything,” said Jeff Blair, the morning talk host on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, Toronto’s all-sports radio giant. “There’s always the fear they will win the Stanley Cup before the Leafs win it again. If Montreal does, you’ll shrug your shoulders and go, “Well, hell, they’re the Montreal Canadiens. They’re supposed to do it.’ But if Ottawa wins it, that will be the end of the world for Leafs fans.”

Blair, a former longtime columnist at the Toronto Globe and Mail, thinks a Stanley Cup in Buffalo wouldn’t move the hate meter in Toronto all that much. That’s partly because there are plenty of Buffalo fans in Southern Ontario and people in Toronto feel the Cup-less Sabres have endured almost as much pain.

Rivalries are made in the playoffs. The Sabres have been in the NHL since 1970 and, incredibly, have met the Leafs in the postseason only one time − their five-game victory in the 1999 Eastern Conference final.

By comparison, Buffalo has met Philadelphia nine times in the postseason, Boston eight times and Montreal seven. The Leafs were in the Western Conference from 1982-1998, but that still leaves 28 other unrealized opportunities.

“You can’t have a rivalry in the NHL unless there has been some sort of playoff drama,” Blair said. “The seasons just seem to run together, and one game can seem like any other.

“When you’ve got seven games in 14-17 days, you really develop hatred. That’s where you get the real one-on-one battles where things get nastier. During the regular season, stuff happens, but then the next night, you’re playing Philadelphia.

“If the Leafs and Sabres ever met in a playoff series, then it becomes Eichel vs. Auston Matthews because all of a sudden, the discussion becomes, ‘Which of these two guys is going to lead his team to the promised land first?’”

Matthews missed the cutoff for the 2015 draft by two days, or he could have been in the mix with Connor McDavid and Eichel. Where would they have gone? Scouts waffle over the Matthews-Eichel choice the Sabres may have had to make last June in Florida.

“I guess it’s a little like asking me to compare Rembrandt and Picasso,” David Gregory of Central Scouting told NHL.com recently. “They both make your art gallery better.”

But an unnamed scout from a Canadian team really upped the ante last month when speaking to PostMedia during the World Championships in Russia.

“The team that gets him is going to be incredibly surprised just how good he is,” the scout was quoted. “I hear things like, ‘He would have gone third in last year’s draft’. Are you kidding?

“No disrespect to Eichel, but he couldn’t carry Matthews’ skates to the rink. His impact in the NHL is going to be special.”

Sabres fans, or Eichel fans, might beg to differ. The Blaisdell family of Lewiston, Maine, was at Legends Row and laughed when told about the scout’s Eichel-Matthews comparison.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” said Bob Blaisdell, who watched Eichel plenty during Boston University games against his favorite team, Boston College. “Eichel was really good last year, and he’s going to be very good.”

“Eichel was so big,” added Blaisdell’s 17-year-old son, Sam. “He’s one of the best college players I’ve ever seen come out. No way.”

Once upon a time

There was no expectation of a Leafs-Sabres playoff showdown in 1999. The Leafs were a No. 4 seed, and the Sabres were a No. 7. But the top three seeds were all first-round losers. Buffalo swept No. 2 Ottawa, and the bracket blew wide open.

“We were the red-headed child that everybody thought about − ‘The Sabres will be gone eventually,’” Ray said. “It was probably good for us at that point, and it pushed you.

“When you played up there on Hockey Night in Canada, that inspired you. The Leafs were used to it. Our guys always felt like they had something to prove against Toronto or Montreal because you knew it was going across the country and the friends and families were watching.”

Ray said he scored “the biggest goal” of his life in Game Four of that series, a mid-air backhand deflection of a Stu Barnes pass that was part of a three-goal burst in less than three minutes.

The Sabres won the series in Game Five at the Air Canada Centre, getting back to the Cup final for the first time in 24 years.

“That bus ride from Toronto back to Buffalo is one of the best 2½ hours of my career,” Ray said.

Starting anew

The Sabres-Leafs rivalry, however, doesn’t have much of a compelling history. There was the famous game in 1970 when the deposed Punch Imlach took his expansion club back to Maple Leaf Gardens two months into Buffalo’s first season and posted a 7-2 shocker. And there was a 14-4 Sabres beating of the Leafs in the Aud in 1981 - a game that featured a still unbroken record of nine second-period goals by the Sabres.

But how many memorable games between the teams truly exist? Most of the memories are of the byplay in the stands, which is certainly going to heat up again Friday night as Blue and White fans overrun the FNC in the first NHL Draft to see the secondary ticket market blowing up for the right to see the festivities.

You could feel things percolating last year when Babcock chose Toronto over Buffalo and some wars of words developed between Eichel and Kadri during the season. We could be just days away from another turf war, with the Leafs and Sabres both expected to be players in the bidding for Tampa Bay superstar Steve Stamkos.

“There’s an appetite for patience in Toronto now,” said Blair of The Fan. “People saw enough progress this year, saw the Leafs turn into a team they didn’t hate. People weren’t throwing jerseys on the ice. They seemed to be a likable group. They worked hard. They just weren’t very good. Most nights, people left the Air Canada Centre thinking they saw a very hard working and not very good hockey team.

“But the real pressure comes to Matthews if Stamkos joins the Leafs, and maybe they go out and add a goaltender. As soon as that happens, as soon as people get the sense the five-year plan may have been jacked up a couple years, that’s when the frenzy will really kick in. The second Steven Stamkos is here, people in this city will believe the Leafs are going to win the Cup.”

Assuming his blood clot issue is resolved, Sabres fans might have the same feeling if Stamkos comes their way. And they’d be able to taunt the Leafs with a star player who’s a suburban Toronto native.

“People in Toronto still don’t look at Buffalo as a rival,” Ray said. “We look at them that way. We kind of have a feeling it doesn’t matter what happens all year long because as long as you beat the Leafs, it’s good.

“There, they don’t give us the respect that the Sabres are somebody that are relevant. … ‘They look like they’re on some elite level than what we are. That’s not the case.”

A large mural displaying all the logos in Leafs history adorns one wall of the Bay Street Galleria entrance to the Air Canada Centre. A new logo, a throwback to the ’60s, will be officially unveiled on the jersey Matthews is given on the stage here Friday night.

The mural carries the slogan “Honour. Pride. Courage.” It’s heady stuff, the kind of marketing bravado the Leafs are famous for, and it’s what Matthews will be expected to uphold while lifting the franchise to where it hasn’t been for a half-century.

“I think I can definitely be a No. 1 center man, a franchise center man in the NHL,” Matthews said that day in HarborCenter. “Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews — those are two guys I really like to watch. I admire just the way they compete. They are leaders. They win Stanley Cups.”

And the intense scrutiny of trying to do that in Toronto?

“I definitely think I can handle everything,” Matthews said. “I’m physically and mentally strong, and I can handle all of that pressure.”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com