The Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs have been rivals since the Sabres admission to the NHL in 1970, not only because they are close geographically but because the seeds of the Buffalo franchise were sown by former Leafs coach and GM George “Punch” Imlach, who led Toronto to their last four Stanley Cups in the mid-1960s and was fired by Toronto in 1969.
Both franchises are currently suffering through long stretches of misfortune, with Buffalo missing the playoffs the last 11 seasons, and Toronto not advancing past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2004, but the way forward for the Atlantic Division rivals are in the hands of a pair of Americans who have followed different paths to superstardom.
In the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs selected Auston Matthews. The big center was a product of the US National Development Program but chose to play one season in Switzerland instead of junior hockey or in the NCAA before being selected first overall. An imposing physical specimen at 6’3”, 208 lb., Matthews has achieved individual awards, winning the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) in 2017, the Rocket Richard Trophy (Most goals in a season) in 2021 and 2022, and the Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player) in 2022, but has not been able to lead the Leafs past the first round of the playoffs each of the last six seasons.
“(Auston) presented immediately. He came in on a visit to the National Team program. We would have those kids that year, before they come to the program, come in and I would have practice with us, just so they get a feel for it.” Sabres and former US National Development Program head coach Don Granato said. “Auston was one of those guys that (I) pretty much ran off the ice and grabbed our player personnel director and said, ‘Please tell me you have him signed up for next year’ because, at that point, you had to commit kids. He laughed and said, ‘No, we don’t need to do that yet.’ We got in a pretty good discussion about ‘Yes, we do.’ He has a lot of passion for the game.”
At the same draft, the St. Louis Blues selected Tage Thompson 26th overall. After playing one year on the same USNDP team as Matthews under Granato, the Phoenix, Arizona native went the college route playing two years at the University of Connecticut before turning pro in 2017. The following year, Thompson was dealt by the Blues to Buffalo in the trade for Ryan O’Reilly, but he struggled for the next three seasons due to injuries and being played on the wing by head coach Ralph Krueger.
At the start of the 2021-22 season, Granato moved him back to center and everything fell into place for the 25-year-old, as he set a career-high mark with 38 goals and 68 points, prompting Matthews to recognize Thompson as one of the most underrated players in the league.
Buffalo signed the 6’6”, 220 lb. forward to a seven-year, $50 million deal last August and the Sabres have been rewarded for being proactive, with Thompson currently third in NHL scoring with 36 goals (trailing only Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak). Both players reside in Arizona during the summer and practice together, which has proved to be an opportunity for Thompson to pick up a few pointers.
Ep 113: The Patriots And The AFC East
by Full Press Coverage on March 17, 2023 at 2:14 pm
“It’s been nice skating with (Auston) in the summers. Just kind of picking his brain a little bit. Just watching him and trying to compete against him in the summer and it’s been good for my game. I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned from him is just picking up certain characteristics of his game, watching the way he shoots the puck and just using his size.” Thompson said. “It’s an honor anytime to get recognized and especially from someone of his caliber.”
Granato has the unique perspective of knowing both players since they were teenagers and recognizes their individual talents and how both big centers can dominate games.
Around Full Press Hockey
NHL: Four Crucial Areas For Maple Leafs The Rest Of This Regular Season
NHL Rumors: NHL Rumors: New Jersey Devils Trade Targets
NHL: NHL All Star Game Thoughts and Possible Changes
NFL: What Eddie Robinson Told Doug Williams After He Made History 35 Years Ago
Full Press Bets: Early 2022 NFL MVP Odds: Bills’ Josh Allen Favored
PODCAST: Full Press Hockey Weekly Ep 45: Canucks, Islanders, and The Boston Bruins
“You could come up with lots of similarities. I mean the shot, the overall talent, skill, strength, size, reach, competitiveness, (and) love of the game. They both have (the) ability to make plays, (but) they do those things a little differently. Auston at a very young age was built like a man, he had lots of strength as a teenager. Tage, you could see he had a frame that was going to fill out more and more, day by day, year by year,” Granato said. “When I had them as teenagers, you could argue which one was more talented. Which one was stronger at that time? Auston was, he was physically stronger, he could torque the puck harder at that point and (was) stronger on a stick at that point. But I think that’s where Tage has really grown and obviously, he’s added some inches now too… which are pretty impressive attributes to add to a player.”
The Leafs are having another excellent regular season, but are likely to face Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season, while the Sabres are battling with five teams for an Eastern Conference wildcard spot. Barring the departure of Matthews from Toronto after next season when his contract expires, it is likely that the two Arizona boys will continue to lead their clubs and battle each other in the Atlantic Division over the next decade.
Leave a Reply