Earlier this offseason, Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews put it out there that he wanted to record more assists than goals this upcoming season. It doesn’t seem very unreasonable on the surface, but might be difficult when you consider that he was on pace for 45 goals last year over an 82 game season, and that would put his career average at 42.5 goals per 82 games.
Looking only at forwards, 35 players recorded 45 or more assists last season, so considering Matthews’ status as one of the NHL’s premier offensive talents, to be amongst the top-35 playmaking forwards may not be that big of a challenge, but the question is how much does his game need to change in order to meet or exceed that threshold?
Including all situations, it might be a little tricky, so let’s cut things down to 5-vs-5 play only which brings Matthews down to an average of 31 goals per 82 games. According to Corsica.Hockey only 10 forwards in the NHL hit 31 or more assists at 5-vs-5 last season. How does Matthews’ playmaking chops compare to the average of those players?
Looking at the passing tendencies of only the 10 players to hit 31 5-vs-5 assists last season, we can see that overall, they passed the puck in the offensive zone more often than Matthews did, about 3.1 more passes per 20 minutes in total, but Matthews was actually slightly above average in the most important and dangerous pass type; passes to the slot.
A good portion of the scoring chances that Matthews generates for his teammates don’t come from direct passes, as with most shooters, they come from creating rebounds that linemates pounce on which is a rich source of assists. Even including those, he still generated fewer scoring chances than the average top-10 playmaker did last season.
While Matthews passed the puck less often than his peer group, it should be noted that he preferred to make passes that were more difficult, focusing on penetrating the slot and keeping the puck low in the zone with north cycle passes. The top playmakers in the league almost universally like to defer to the point with south cycle passes quite often to make more space for themselves and spread out opposing coverage while Matthews seems to almost prefer to draw opponents towards him and overpower them with his unique combination of stickhandling and physicality.
There’s more than one way to bake a cake, and although Matthews completes fewer offensive zone passes per 20 minutes than anyone in the top-10 assist leaders, he’s spitting distance from Dylan Larkin, and his passes are of a higher quality on average.
In order to improve his chances of surpassing the 30 assist plateau, Matthews should probably try to use his defencemen a bit more, but a more important focus for him, in particular, might be completing more East-West passes, moving the puck through but not into the slot, for wingers that can make quick one-timers that force a goaltender to react quickly.
When Mike Babcock was asked about Matthews’ intent to record more assists than goals, he mentioned that William Nylander would need to be a better goal-scorer for him, and it’s true that despite Nylander’s far above average shot, his 5-vs-5 goal scoring has been underwhelming, scoring 11 and 12 goals the last two seasons, and scoring on just 7.97% and 9.09% of his shots on goal.
Matthews’ other consistent linemate has been Zach Hyman, who has scored six and 13 goals at 5-vs-5 the last two seasons, scoring on 4.48% and 9.7% of his shots on goal. Last year Hyman likely scored at a rate higher than his talent level, so to expect him to be the one to bring the goals is probably unfair. The expected swap to Patrick Marleau in that spot though, could be enough to push Matthews’ assists way up without changing his game much.
Marleau is an above average 5-vs-5 goal scorer and hasn’t been the beneficiary of passes of the caliber Matthews is making since he played with Joe Thornton. Therein lies the problem for Matthews though, even if he does change his game, playmakers are always reliant on their linemates to ultimately put the puck in the net, and thus far in his career, he hasn’t had linemates capable of doing that regularly at 5-vs-5.
It’s also worth mentioning that of the top 5-vs-5 assist producers, only Connor McDavid was able to top the 30 5-vs-5 goal mark last season, with Nikita Kucherov the next closest at 27. In fact, according to Corsica, Connor McDavid last season is the only player in the last five seasons to hit 30 goals and 30 or more assists at 5-vs-5, so Matthews would be looking to join a very exclusive club.
All this aside, Matthews could easily have a dynamite year on the powerplay setting up someone like John Tavares for example, and see his assist numbers explode, but I’m truly interested to see if he can sharpen his playmaking ability without sacrificing his goal scoring. If adding more passing to his game comes at the expense of goals though, I’m not sure it’s a change he should make.
Through his first two seasons, Matthews has already established himself as one of the most impressive 5-vs-5 goal scorers of the era, and it would be a shame to mess with that for an arbitrary reason.