The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a decent but not overwhelmingly excellent start to the season, going 2-1-1 in four games against three good teams plus the Ottawa Senators.
And there are some question marks so far about how things will come together.
The chemistry between Mitch Marner and John Tavares that tore up the league last season doesn’t seem apparent yet, though it’s far too early to panic, and the top defence pairing of Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci are far below team average in on-ice differentials.
However, even if there are some areas to work on, the early returns on the reunion of Auston Matthews and William Nylander have been stellar, with Matthews lighting the lamp five times already in four games.
Strong starts are typical for Matthews, who is second behind Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in shot attempts among forwards with 34 in all situations. As we’ve pointed out before though, Matthews isn’t a player who relies just on shot volume to score. He’s one of the league’s smartest shooters and most dogged in fighting for a better position to shoot from.
Keep in mind that when we use totals, the results are highly dependent on both games played and ice time in various game modes, not to mention that the small sample sizes of a season this young can give us some wild results. But it’s still interesting how much Matthews stands out here.
Kyle Connor is the only player in the top-10 in shot attempts to have more from the inner slot area than Matthews’ eight, and Connor plays a net-front position, something Matthews isn’t able to do on a regular basis due to his responsibilities as a centre.
Ovechkin remains the NHL’s king of shot volume both overall and from the slot — where he’s somehow already fired off 26 scoring chances in this young season — but while Ovechkin creates more volume, Matthews gets his shots off from better locations.
Ovechkin shoots from an average distance of 10.85 meters from the goal line, whereas Matthews is getting his shots off from an average of 7.5 meters. That’s the difference between the edge of the slot and the dead center of it, and it gives Matthews a real advantage in beating goaltenders before other factors are weighed in.
Those other factors have to be considered of course. For example, the percentage of a player’s scoring chances that are preceded by a pass, or come off the rush, or involve a one-timer.
Sticking with Ovechkin, since he’s the gold standard of goal scorers, let’s look at how each player’s scoring chances stack up with these other factors weighed in.
Surprisingly, Matthews is taking one-timers from the slot at a far higher rate than Ovechkin so far, despite Ovi dwarfing Matthews in cycle chances. That means, for whatever reason in a small sample size, Ovechkin is getting passes in the slot but taking an extra split second to take the shot.
Overall, Ovechkin has already received 20 passes in the slot in all situations, while Matthews has only received nine, which has forced Matthews to create more of his own chances. So far he’s made the most out of his nine received passes to the slot, turning five of them into one-timers.
Matthews has also been attacking more off the rush this season compared to his usual, which is likely due in part to playing with Nylander again, who is one of the NHL’s best zone entry players. Gaining the zone with control gives more opportunity for a player like Matthews to get those chances, since he doesn’t carry the puck through the neutral zone as often as you would think.
Ovechkin gets more chances off his teammates’ forechecking, which makes sense considering Matthews likes to forecheck himself to create those chances. If Zach Hyman were on that line, Matthews would naturally get more chances off the forecheck, but without Hyman, Matthews is the one digging the puck out more often to set things back up for his team.
Because Matthews shoots from closer to the net, he also gets more opportunity to bounce on rebounds, something Ovechkin is great at when he gets the opportunity, but he gets less often because he positions himself further out.
None of this is to say that Matthews is a better goal scorer than Ovechkin. Until proven otherwise, no one is better than Ovechkin at putting that rubber biscuit into the net.
The two accomplish their goal scoring very differently, but looking at the context of the two highest-volume scoring chance producers in this young NHL season, you can see why Matthews seems to score at will.