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NHL 22, the Maple Leafs’ playoff bust and Justin Bieber’s posse: A conversation with Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews played it coy when asked what EA Sports identified as his “X-Factor” in its new NHL 22 game.

“I’m going to take a wild guess and say that I’ve got a good shot in the game. Maybe some good goal-scoring abilities,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs center, who last season led the NHL in goals for the first time in his five-year career.

Matthews is the cover athlete for NHL 22, the second time he’s made the front of the box for EA Sports after gracing the NHL 20 cover. It’s only appropriate that a game focused on separating the superstars from the rest of the league would feature one of its elite young talents, one who just scored 41 goals in 52 games.

“I think it’s a good cover. Not many people get to be on the cover of the video game. I consider myself pretty lucky,” he told ESPN. “I think it’s going to be a pretty sweet game.”

With NHL 22, EA Sports has made the league’s best players something more than their ability ratings. It created two different tiers of abilities: “zone” and “superstar.” The “zone” abilities are assigned to elite players that possess game-changing talent; since they’re so powerful within the game, only one is assigned to each eligible player. The “superstar” abilities are less powerful, and multiple ones are assigned to about 100 players in the game. They range from enhanced shots and passing abilities to being able to sneak a puck through screens to the goaltender.

“We’re trying to re-create superstars in a way that’s authentic to hockey,” said NHL 22 producer Clement Kwong.

Matthews’ zone ability is called “Shock & Awe.” It seeks to mimic his exceptional power and accuracy when shooting out of a deke move, using his curl and drag shot. Much like in the real world, digital defenders will have to be more aware when Matthews is on the ice.

The same goes for Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl‘s video game proxy, who has the “Tape To Tape” zone ability, allowing him to make remarkable passes within his vision. The exceptional attributes extend to defensive players as well: Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has the “Contortionist” zone ability, in which he can make “impossible” saves during the game.

“I just picture [Connor] McDavid in this game just skating by everyone so easily. I can’t wait to see that,” said Matthews.

We spoke with the NHL 22 cover athlete recently about gaming, both on Nintendo and on the chess board; another Maple Leafs’ playoff disaster; and whether he’s in Justin Bieber’s posse, or if it’s the other way around.

ESPN: You’re someone who’s always been interested in ways to grow the NHL’s fan base. Are video games one such way? Were you one of those guys that, say, got into soccer playing FIFA?

Matthews: A little bit. I’ve always played video games here and there. I’ve never been a super-gamer kind of guy, but I do enjoy playing them a lot. [EA Sports’] NHL is one that I always enjoyed playing, and looked forward to getting every Christmas. But I played a little FIFA once in a while, which gives you the itch to play the sport itself. But I don’t know if the Leafs really want me doing too much of that, though. [Laughs].

I’ll bring my Nintendo Switch on the road, and so will a couple of the other guys. This year I actually got into playing chess on the plane. Trying to learn that a little bit. I like it a lot. Had a big chess bug this year, for some reason.

ESPN: Were you a “Queen’s Gambit” binger?

Matthews: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s why. Watching that show. It’s funny how that works. So I got into that. You go through these phases where all you want to do is play video games and then all you want to do is play chess. I played a little bit against the boys. Me and [former Leafs goalie] Freddie Andersen hung out a lot, so we played against each other quite a bit. I wouldn’t play [center Alex] Kerfoot because I know he went to Harvard, and obviously would beat me.

ESPN: Let me ask about your offseason. Were you in Justin Bieber’s entourage or was he in your entourage at UFC 264?

Matthews: [Laughs] I was in his, for sure. But when he came down to Phoenix, I would have to say he was more in mine. He came down, he stayed with me, he hung out at my house. My buddies were there and stuff. I can’t say enough great things about him. He’s a Grade-A guy and we had a lot of fun.

ESPN: When you win the Rocket Richard Trophy, as you did last season for the first time, where do you keep it?

Matthews: I’ll keep it at my parents’ house. They’ve got a little room with jerseys with all the teams I played on, with little awards. They’ve got my sister’s golf stuff in there, too. I’ll pass it along to them and they can do what they want with it. Every time I go over there, it’s like something new is in that room.

All the stuff used to be in my dad’s office, and then one summer I came home and my dad took all my stuff out of his office and decided to put his stuff in there instead. He likes to hunt, so he put all of his hunting stuff in there and then designated another room in the house for my stuff. I let them do that. I guess it made them happy.

ESPN: Did you ever do the father-son bonding thing and go hunting together?

Matthews: Yeah, I actually used to go when I was a little bit younger. But I saw some snakes a couple times when I was out there. That was it for me.

ESPN: That sounds like a “growing up in Arizona” problem.

Matthews: It really was.

ESPN: Touching on the Toronto Maple Leafs for a moment. It was obviously another unsatisfying playoff result. The Montreal Canadiens, the team that eliminated you in seven games, went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It was a series that saw you lose John Tavares to a scary injury. Compared to previous losses, was it any easier to get past this one, given the context?

Matthews: No, it was definitely harder, in that sense. It’s tough … it’s obviously really frustrating. It sucks right now. People have opinions and they can say what they want, and rightfully so, but I really believe in the team and I really believe in all of the players on the team — the core group especially. I truly believe that we’re going to get it done. We’re going to be better from our losses, and from the adversity that we faced.

The only way is forward. [The playoff loss] sucked. There’s no other way to put it. Extremely disappointing. But it’ll just feel that much better when we eventually get to the top.

ESPN: Your general manager, Kyle Dubas, has doubled down on that sentiment. He’s said that he would “bet everything” on the core of the Leafs being able to figure out how to win a championship. When you hear your GM say that, what does that mean to you?

Matthews: I don’t think that’s news to us. We know that’s how he feels. When he reiterates that, it gives us confidence moving forward. That’s all you can ask for: that your general manager and all your teammates truly believe in one another.

ESPN: Finally, as a hockey player and a fashion icon, would you prefer the cover of a sports video game or the cover of GQ?

Matthews: Oh, I would take the cover of the video game. I don’t read magazines too often.

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