LOS ANGELES â€” Auston Matthews looked more like a movie star as he ambled through a hotel lobby just south of Hollywood on Saturday evening, swarmed by a crowd of autograph seeking fans.
The Toronto Maple Leafs centre certainly looked nothing like the first-time all-star he is, but someone who’d been on the big stage for some time. If on-ice performance wasn’t enough in the first half this season, Matthews’ arrival in Los Angeles for all-star weekend, alongside fellow young stars Connor McDavid and Patrik Laine, certainly punctuated that fact home.
“It’s exciting to be here with them,” said Matthews, who leads all rookies with 23 goals this season. “We’re all kind of going through our first all-star game (together) so hopefully it’s not the last one.”
The three youngest players on hand in LA have been revelling in their first all-star experiences.
McDavid began the weekend’s festivities at a Friday ceremony honouring the NHL’s 100 greatest players. He was joined by his grandfather, who was particularly excited to see some of his old favourites recognized. It’s a group the Edmonton Oilers captain seems destined to one day join if his current performance is any predictor.
The 16th youngest regular in the league this season, McDavid none the less tops all players with 59 points, including Sidney Crosby â€” who sits four points back. Wayne Gretzky reiterated his belief earlier in the weekend that the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and second-time all-star (this is his first showing since 2007) was still the game’s best, describing him as the one that McDavid was “chasing”.
“Connor sees him in his vision,” Gretzky said.
“Just to be mentioned in the same sentence as a guy like Crosby and obviously coming from Wayne Gretzky it’s pretty special,” McDavid said of the compliments.
He later added of Crosby: “He’s the best player in the world by far.”
McDavid is almost certainly the fastest, though he came just shy of Dylan Larkin’s record for the fastest skater event at Saturday’s skills competition, even without the running start Larkin had last year. On-ice officials drew a line on the ice and told him to be between it and the red-line.
“I was happy with how it went honestly,” McDavid said afterward, if mildly disappointed not to get the record.
Matthews went head-to-head twice with Crosby during the skills challenge and came out on the losing side both times. Crosby joked that he might cheat to gain an advantage in the accuracy shooting event or even saw off his American counterpart’s stick, but neither tactic was ultimately required.
Crosby looked like the seasoned pro in the stick-handling challenge, outdoing an admittedly nervous Matthews who bobbled the puck. The 19-year-old found his composure in the accuracy shooting, confidently thrashing four targets in 12.28 seconds, but it wasn’t enough to beat Crosby, who blitzed through in 10.73 seconds.
“He made me look bad there,” said Matthews, seated between Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber in the Eastern Conference’s dressing room. “I guess that’s the reason why he’s got 26 goals this year.”
Laine was confident he’d thrive at the event. Practise wasn’t required, he said, because his first and only previous bid was such a success. The 19-year-old nailed all four targets with ease at the Winnipeg Jets skills competition in mid-December, setting a team record with a mark of 8.4 seconds.
“It might be a little bit more pressure,” he said of the NHL event.
Nerves were apparent as he fumbled with the puck at Staples Center. He needed almost 22 seconds to get through the four targets.
Laine seemed to feel like he belonged among the stars though and hoped that one day his name would be mentioned among the greatest ever players, just like those 100 who were honoured as part of the NHL’s centennial season celebration.
“Yeah, I think that’s everybody’s goal, to be remembered,” Laine said.
The three young stars from three Canadian markets have certainly made quick names for themselves this season, impressions that go beyond just autograph-hungry fans.
“They’re just players that can control the game,” New York Islanders captain and three-time all-star John Tavares said. “They’re obviously elite talents with what they’re doing in their teenage years, their first couple years in the league.
“It’s good motivation for guys like me to keep pushing myself to get better and know the next wave of guys are coming and to enjoy that challenge.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press