SIMMONS: Like all the great ones, Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews is inventing a new way to play the game

Wayne Gretzky scored more goals than anyone in hockey history, yet by sight alone, he would never be considered just a pure and natural goal scorer. He was so much more than that.

He invented new ways to play. He made his office behind the opposing net a part of modern hockey. He saw things no one else saw, slowed the game down the way no one has ever slowed it down, turned the game into advanced trigonometry on ice, the study of angles and triangles. He turned the turn-up into something other than a vegetable.

The greatest in all of sports do that, become special by doing what no one has done before, leaving their mark and their signature on the game they play.

Gretzky did that and in different ways — and so did Mario Lemieux and now Sidney Crosby — inventing a whole different way to play, with more bursts and stops and less finesse and power through his legs and his edging on the ice and his non-stop competitive spirit.

From left: Leafs Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, John Tavares and Mitchell Marner celebrate Matthews second goal of the game versus Dallas on Tuesday night. GETTY IMAGES

Auston Matthews isn’t easily defined in his third NHL season, but he’s reaching the place that makes the great ones different. He does so many different things well. There is a little bit of Lemieux in him, the way he likes to burst through the neutral zone and use his size and reach and strength.

There is a little bit of Brett Hull in him, and maybe a touch of Mike Bossy. How he shoots the puck, quickly, and from places other players can’t find. The angles. The lining up of the defending players. The quickness of delivery.

Like Gretzky, like Lemieux, like Phil Esposito, they all scored a ton of goals — Gretzky’s were so much finesse, Lemieux’s were sheer beauty and power and art, Esposito was never a painter, he was a pragmatic goal scorer, someone who could use his size and shape and width and hands to score.

His game wasn’t at all like Matthews’ is now, except they both had the knack.

With opportunities come goals. Seven in four games this season, in this third NHL season for young Matthews, after a disappointing seven-game series against Boston last May, after a summer of monster work on his game.

This Matthews is bigger, stronger, faster, more determined, more confident, more understanding of what he can and can’t do than he was in his first two years. We haven’t seen the best of him yet: That happens over time.

Yet he leads all of hockey with seven goals, the most difficult player in the NHL to control until Connor McDavid, who plays a completely different style in Edmonton, kicks into gear.

Edmonton Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky was at his greatest after the age of 24. How good can Auston Matthews, who is just 21, really be? POSTMEDIA NETWORK FILE

Gretzky was so different from Lemieux in size and shape and style of play and Bobby Hull was so different from Gordie Howe, who was different from Rocket Richard. Later came Bobby and then Brett Hull and Alexander Ovechkin.

Matthews is still so young. The best of Gretzky came when he was 24 and older. The best of Lemieux and Ovechkin came after the ages of 23 and 24. Matthews just turned 21.

Whatever it was we thought he could become when the Maple Leafs drafted him in Buffalo in 2016, he is growing into more than that. He’s leaving his mark already. He’s scoring goals the way few centres have scored goals over the past several decades.

The past 20 winners of the goal-scoring title — and for the past 19 years the Rocket Richard Trophy has been presented for that — have been mostly wingers. Sixteen of the past 20 years, wingers led the NHL in scoring.

Steven Stamkos and Crosby and, in an outlier year of sorts, Vinny Lecavalier led all goal-scoring. But over that time, Ovechkin has led for a record seven times, the same number Bobby Hull once led by. Howe led five times with Gretzky winning the same number. Lemieux won the goal-scoring title just three times.

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Most centres set up goals. This season in Toronto, Matthews and John Tavares are scoring them at a crazy pace in the early going. This is relatively new for Tavares, skating on this magnificent Maple Leafs power play, working with the gifted playmaker Mitch Marner

But in nine previous seasons, he’s only scored more goals than assists once, and that came in a 48-game season.

In most of his 82-game seasons, Tavares has been assist first, score second, the way the position is usually meant to be played.

Matthews’ developing game doesn’t work that way. He has scored 81 goals in 148 NHL games — all on an entry-level contract and without a good deal of power-play time before this season.

He might score 50 this year. He might score 50 next year. The leap from Year 2 to Year 3 has been easy to surmise and quantify from the moment training camp began. This pace can’t be kept up — no player can score that much — but how much can Auston Matthews score?

How many goals? How many Rocket Richard Trophies will he win? Can he reach the six Esposito won, the most from any centre, at a time when the sport was so different than it is today? Will his shot be like Ovechkin’s, like Brett Hull’s, the kind of shot goalies never seem to be able to figure out?

Along the way, he is inventing a new game that is his and his alone. The way Gretzky once did, the way Lemieux once did, the way Connor McDavid is doing in Edmonton: The great ones are originals who paint their own canvases, turn artistry into sport.

Auston Matthews is just beginning on this trail. The possibilities are endless.

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Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies