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Matthews part of young Toronto core hoping to emulate Blackhawks

When Mike Babcock was asked what’s most impressive about prized rookie Auston Matthews, the Maple Leafs coach pivoted to include Matthews in an answer about Toronto’s intriguing young core.

Sure, it was a political answer from Babcock, but the likes of Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and the other emerging Leafs are keys to Toronto’s future and hopes of maybe following in the Blackhawks’ footsteps.

They’re just not as famous as their teammate.

Matthews, the first overall pick in this year’s entry draft, will be making his United Center debut Saturday when the Blackhawks host Toronto. The Scottsdale, Arizona native scored four goals in his first NHL game and has lived up to the hype that’s accompanied his arrival as the latest great American player to emerge. A 19-year-old center, Matthews has the size, vision, smarts and pure talent to one of the next stars of the game.

Auston Matthews is the centerpiece of a young Toronto team looking to emulate the Blackhawks. | Getty Images

Since he’s such a prized asset, Babcock said the Leafs have “been very conscious of the people we keep around him.”

“He’s a smart guy too. He’s going to be surrounded by lots of people in his lifetime and he’s got to make good decisions on who those people are,” Babcock said. “There will be lots of people that want to get to know him, but you’ve got to decide who you’re going to let into your immediate circle because those people end up having an influence on you.

“Those are the people that give you a tight step on the line, so I think it’s real important that he makes good choices.”

Matthews said he’s watched Patrick Kane and even got a phone call this summer from Jonathan Toews, two players who have enjoyed the success the young rookie craves.

“This team has been one of the best for the last six, seven years,” Matthews said. “They’ve obviously got a lot of high-end players so it’s going to be a pretty fun night.”

Of course, the Leafs as a team would like to emulate what the Hawks have done with those high-end players. Babcock was coaching the Red Wings when they beat the Hawks in five games in the 2009 Western Conference final, and saw a young team that was “starting to pick up speed.”

In the years after, well, you know what’s happened.

“They’ve had a real good run here, so we’d like to have a real good run,” Babcock said. “We’ve got lots of kids who are trying to learn how to play just like they were.”

Matthews figures to be a big part of whatever Toronto accomplishes over the next few years. And as Babcock said, he’s a big part of an impressive young Leafs core, which has some parallels to that Hawks roster in 2009 when Toews and Kane were finishing their second season in the NHL.

But talented youth doesn’t automatically mean a team becomes the Hawks.

“The only thing about it is everybody wants to be the next Nick Lidstrom. The next… but there’s only one Nick Lidstrom, so there’s only one Chicago,” Babcock said. “You’ve got to create your own path but we’re starting to have a stable full of kids and you need skill and then you’ve got to learn how to play and you’ve got to develop a culture of accepting nothing less than winning.

“Tazer here is, to me, he’s the drivetrain for this team. He’s as determined as anybody I’ve been around and the moral fiber of the team. He does it right all the time. He’s set a high bar here.”

Maybe Matthews will do the same soon for the Leafs.