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Leafs’ Matthews is ready for his close-up

MONTREAL – Last September, Jack Eichel was in Buffalo getting ready to play in the Sabres’ inaugural prospects tournament. He was still wearing No. 41 and going along with Dan Bylsma’s ruse that he could get his real sweater if and when he made the team. Yeah, right.

Eichel remembers getting plenty of advice back then and one thing stood out: Your life will be completely different 12 months from now. It’s true. Eichel, as expected, became the future building block of the Sabres and is preparing to move into a tony multi-story townhouse with teammate Sam Reinhart. He’s also a key member of Team North America, getting ready to play in the World Cup as part of the most distinctive team in recent hockey history.

But even as Eichel was going through his rookie year, he kept in contact with World Junior teammate Auston Matthews, who was getting a taste of pro life in Switzerland. They’re teammates again, with Matthews in the spotlight in this tournament and as the future savior of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And Eichel has passed those words of wisdom to Matthews: Get ready for 12 months of your life on fast-forward.

“He’s obviously had a lot of good mentors and he knows how it’s going to be,” Eichel said during a break from practice this week in Bell Centre. “I haven’t gotten in his ear too much but I talked to him when he was over in Switzerland and he bounced a few questions off me, things of how it’s like playing 82 games, the road, whatever. I just kind of told him how it was. We know it’s a long season, and it’s more of a mental thing. Look forward to the rink every day and getting better. Year one will be great for him.”

Thursday night in Quebec City, Matthews gets unveiled to the world when Team North America meets Team Europe in its first exhibition game. This is not some sleepy prospect tournament in Sudbury. The game is at the 18,000-seat Videotron Centre, which seems destined to house the new version of the Quebec Nordiques someday soon. And it’s on national television on both sides of the border, via ESPN2 in the United States and Sportsnet in Canada.

“I’m excited. It’s fun,” Matthews said. “Practice has been good, fast pace and tempo. It’s fun to be out there. This is the top of the top. I want to learn as much as I can and I know it will be a big adjustment. It’s part of the process and I want to earn as much ice time as I can.”

In May, Matthews was the focus of the NHL Scouting Combine in HarborCenter. A month later, he went No. 1 in the draft at First Niagara Center. He went to Leafs development camp, signed his entry-level contract. Things are moving fast and furious. He started this camp as the 13th forward. By day two, he was already on the third line with Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, also a pair of No. 1 overall picks.

“You always want to create something and it comes with confidence,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s great to see he already has that and is able to play with the top guys. Before he even plays in an NHL game, he gets to play against the best players in the NHL and that will really help him.”

Getting the first in-person glimpse of Matthews is going to be one of the big points of attention for the North American media. So far in practice, it’s quite obvious to see his skill and I don’t think we’ve really seen him explode up the ice yet either.

In fact, “wow” was the first word used by Team North America and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan when asked here about Matthews, one of five No. 1 overalls on this roster.

“There’s a lot of characteristics that I used with an individual last year in Edmonton,” McLellan said in a reference to Connor McDavid. “They’re different players but the wow factor, maturity, size, strength and poise with the puck, ability to pick up concepts really quick and the lack of intimidation. ... He’s done a really good job and the Leafs will have a very good player for many, many years.”

Eichel scored a goal in his first NHL game last October but had a big welcome-to-the-NHL moment when he was burned by Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for a goal a couple of days later. Similarly, McDavid started his career in deferential mode until scoring his first goal in game three.

“It’s going to be an eye-opener for him,” McDavid said of Matthews. “I know for me in my first few NHL games, it was a real eye-opener to see just how good everyone is. He played pro but in my case I was used to a junior level and pace. You can step in and think, ‘Oh, it might not be that bad’ but it was very intense and very competitive. He’s stepping right into the fire but I think he’ll be fine. He’ll adapt.”

Matthews, remember, is 10 days away from embarking on a tourney that will solely be played in the Air Canada Centre, the place he’s expected to turn around one of the league’s long moribund franchises.

“I was in Toronto 2-3 times during the summer training and skating,” he said. “Last week I got everything packed up and got up there. I’m excited to head there and try to earn a spot on the team. It’s the hockey center of the world. It’s fun. It’s Toronto, an unbelievable city. You can really see the passion.”

Matthews has already taken to wearing a Blue Jays hat, a very politically correct move. He has an apartment and won’t be living with an older player like Eichel but said his father will be spending long stretches with him from Arizona.

The Leafs are still another step away. No one has made their debut in this setting, playing an international tournament before the NHL, since Eric Lindros did it in the 1991 Canada Cup. It’s heady stuff indeed.

“Everybody is super excited. It’s a young locker room so everybody is really jacked up,” Matthews said of Thursday’s game. “We want to measure ourselves against another really good team so it will be a good challenge for us. You have to raise your compete level right away.”

Eichel says to keep your eyes peeled. And if you’re a Leafs fan, you’re going to love what you see.

“The way I look at it, he’s going to have to be an impact player for us,” Eichel said. “He obviously expects that out of himself and I don’t think anyone expects anything less. He’s a great player for a reason. I think he’s going to come in here, hit the ground running and have a great tournament.”


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