Giving historical context to the rookie seasons of Marner and Matthews

Chris Johnston, Gord Stellick and Daren Millard discus the pros and cons of sending Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

The greatest players in a particular sport typically define eras.

We’ve all been living through the Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin era for the past decade, and while many current NHL fans don’t remember the era of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, it rewrote most of the record books. Before that we had Gordie Howe as Mr. Hockey, rivaling other greats such as Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau.

It was always anticipated that the 2015-16 and 2016-17 NHL rookie crops would produce results of historical significance, but with this kind of hype it may be difficult to deliver on the promise. We have been told the NHL is increasingly shifting towards younger players and most observers knew Connor McDavid was the “next one.” But I doubt many pundits anticipated that Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine would produce at levels where a comparison to McDavid or other generational talents made sense this early in their careers.

My own statistical projections prior to this season – admittedly based on limited historical data available on rookies from the Finnish Liiga and Swiss NLA – had both players producing solid rookie results, but nothing like what we have seen thus far. Similarly, discussions of Mitch Marner’s offensive excellence were often counterbalanced by discussion of whether or not he should be returned to the CHL.

We can put aside the argument of which rookie is the most impressive at this early stage, and I won’t spend time delving into the sustainability of shooting percentages or on-ice performance. All I want to touch upon is the insane group of historical comparables this year’s crop of teens are among.

One of the challenges in historical comparison – which we can and do try to sift through regularly – is era adjustment. Different NHL eras have amazingly different contexts. The NHL seasons have varied in length, rosters have been expanded over time, goaltending has improved drastically and there has been significant variation in the spread of talent around the league due to, among other things, expansion.

In recent years we have used era-adjusted numbers to analyze the historical impacts of Alex Ovechkin’s insane goal scoring and Erik Karlsson’s amazing point production from the blue line. Now we can do the same to compare the rookie scoring rates of Matthews, Laine and Marner to historical greats of years past. The list below shows the era-adjusted goal and point production rates per game for the top teens in NHL history (Era Adjusted numbers courtesy www.Hockey-Reference.com).

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What stands out in this ranking is how unusual it is to have three teens producing at a rate this high in the same season. It has actually never happened in NHL history. The only other years where even two teens were playing at this level of production were the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons where Dale Hawerchuk and Ron Francis burst onto the scene in Winnipeg and Hartford, and the 1943-44 season where Ted Kennedy and Bep Guidolin were playing for Toronto and Boston.

Interestingly, another reason for optimism in Leaf Land is a Toronto historical connection worth noting. Between 1942-43 and 1943-44 the Maple Leafs had Gaye Stewart and Ted Kennedy join the team. That is the last time one team featured two teen rookies posting this level of production in succession and led to the opening of what is typically described as the first dynasty in NHL history, where the Leafs won five Stanley Cups in a seven-year span from 1944-45 through 1950-51.

After debuting in the 1942 Stanley Cup Playoffs and getting into just the one game, Stewart won the Calder Trophy as top rookie 1942-43. He finished second in Hart Trophy voting in 1945-46 and was named a first-team all-star. Stewart won two Stanley Cups with Toronto in 1942 and 1947. He was ranked No. 67 on the top 100 All-Time Maple Leafs list that was released earlier this year.

Ted “Teeder” Kennedy was essentially the key to the aforementioned Leafs dynasty of the 1940s. He played two regular season games in 1942-43 and was thus exempt from Calder Trophy voting in 1943-44, a season in which he produced 49 points in 49 games as an 18-year-old in one of the lowest-scoring eras in NHL history. Kennedy was named a second-team all-star on three occasions in 1950, ’51 and ’54. He finished second in Hart Trophy voting in 1949-50 before going on to win in 1954-55. He also won five Stanley Cups with the Leafs in 1945, ‘47,’48, ’49 and ’51. Kennedy was made team captain in 1948, inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 and was No. 3 on the Leafs’ top 100 of all-time list.

It remains to be seen if Marner and Matthews can have the same impact on this generation’s Maple Leafs, but it is interesting that their rookie production has them in this historical company. At the very least, it’s a situation we have rarely ever seen before.