TORONTO — John Tavares got within arm’s length of hockey’s magical scoring number last year, falling three goals shy of becoming the fourth man in Toronto Maple Leafs history with a 50-goal season.
Still, Tavares isn’t even the most dangerous shooter in his own dressing room. He’s seen Auston Matthews score 55 times in the 92 games he’s played since they became teammates and speaks with reverence about his ability to beat goaltenders clean.
"You get Matty inside the dots, there’s no better shooter you want in that spot," said Tavares.
That Matthews has started this season with 13 goals in 17 games barely even seems to have registered as noteworthy in Toronto. It speaks to the incredibly high standard the 22-year-old has set for himself that this seems normal.
Matthews is the NHL leader in goals per hour since entering the league three-plus years ago and appears destined to take his production to another level in 2019-20. In fact, now that he’s seeing an uptick in ice time and creating more shots, the Leafs centre looks like a good bet to chase the 50-goal milestone himself.
Of course, the usual caveats apply.
A fully healthy season — or something very close to it — are required to reach a summit only Alex Ovechkin and Leon Draisaitl have visited since 2012, and Matthews has missed 34 games over the last two seasons with shoulder, concussion and back issues.
But there’s nothing holding him back now and Mike Babcock is giving Matthews 19:47 on average per game — a significant bump from his 18:33 last season. That helps explain his jump in shots on goal from 3.69 to 3.88 per night, which puts him on pace for 318 over an 82-game season.
Were Matthews to convert at his career rate of 15.8 per cent on that many shots, it would give him exactly 50 goals.
The way he’s scored over the first month of this season suggests his hot start is relatively sustainable, too. Matthews is generating the third-most slot shots in the league behind Ovechkin and Kyle Connor, according to SportLogiq, and has scored more goals from that area than everyone but NHL points and goal leader David Pastrnak.
There hasn’t been much luck in the pucks he’s buried, either.
The shot he beat Malcolm Subban with on Thursday night was eerily similar to the one he rifled past Joonas Korpisalo in Columbus during the first week of the season. If he gets an open look from a high-danger area, look out.
It doesn’t even matter if the goaltender is square, set and anticipating it.
"The release. It’s a quick release," said Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. "He changes it up, too, it doesn’t matter if he goes high glove or low blocker. It’s still coming as quick towards you. He’s good at hiding it sometimes before he releases it."
Matthews is still trying to add some new tricks to his arsenal after spending the summer working on a one-timer. He’s now being used on his offside on the power play, which puts him in great position to hammer away at a cross-seam pass, but it’s only resulted in a couple of the goals he’s scored so far.
Call it a work in progress.
His one-timer hasn’t yet proven to be nearly as accurate as his wrist shot — as evidenced by the ‘Grade A’ opportunity he was unable to get past Jonathan Quick during Tuesday’s game against Los Angeles. That’s the kind of look we’ve come to expect him to bury with ease.
"I mean I didn’t really get it all," Matthews said after the game. "I kind of shot it back into him. It was still a heck of a save, but I wasn’t able to get the puck up. I mean he’s so athletic, so he gets his pad over.
"I just couldn’t raise it. Credit to him, that’s a really good save."
Pastrnak predicted before the season that Matthews would win the Hart Trophy as MVP. He should also be in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer — although Ovechkin, currently on pace for a ridiculous 405 shots, and Draisaitl will be awfully tough to beat.
At minimum, we could be watching a season that ends up in the Maple Leafs record book. No Toronto player has scored more than Rick Vaive’s 54 goals from 1981-82 and only Dave Andreychuk and Gary Leeman have joined Vaive with 50-goal years for the franchise.
Matthews has all of the tools needed to join them.
"He has an unbelievable shot and skillset and he can find the soft spot [on the ice], you know?" Pastrnak said last month. "Every time he’s 100 per cent healthy he’s showing that. I just think he’s a hell of a player."