Truth By Numbers: How Auston Matthews has improved as a defensive player

Chris Johnston and Kyle Bukauskas discuss Auston Matthew’s wrist injury, the unique Tkachuk situation and much more.

Over halfway through the season and at the all-star break, Auston Matthews is tied with Alex Ovechkin for second in the league in goals, at 34 in 49 games. The two sharpshooters trail only David Pastrnak, who has an astonishing 37 goals in 51 games.

Matthews scoring goals isn’t a surprise. He’s been the best even strength goal scorer in the NHL since he entered the league; scoring 111 goals in 261 career games. He’s only two ahead of Connor McDavid, but he’s played 30 fewer games, and averages 3:20 less in ice time per game.

That Matthews has been nursing a wrist injury despite his gaudy goal totals has been the talk of the town with the Leafs limping into the all-star break, but what has impressed me about his season so far hasn’t been his shot.

SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

Matthews has one of, if not the best, releases in the game. It’s quick, it’s hard for goaltenders to read, and he’s able to change his release point at the last second and change the angle. It’s crazy, and Matthews gets tons of credit for it, but I think because his shot is so ridiculous he gets underestimated in other areas of the game.

Early this season when the Leafs were struggling, Matthews was rightly criticized for his lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone, something that has plagued him his entire career. At times he looks unfocused or uninterested while defending, but looks can be deceiving. You might be surprised to know that Matthews has among the best defensive impact on the Maple Leafs this season.

The way the Leafs perform while Matthews is on the ice is staggeringly different than when he’s off the ice. Contrasted against the rest of the Leafs’ forward group, it’s easy to see that Matthews and his most common linemates have had by far the greatest impact on the team’s on-ice differentials, especially from the inner slot area.

Matthews may look disengaged at times when he doesn’t have the puck, but not all players who have a strong defensive impact look as active and sound positionally as Patrice Bergeron. Let me throw some numbers at you.

Alex Kerfoot is the only Leafs forward who recovers more loose pucks than Matthews overall, with 21.7 every 20 minutes compared to Matthews’ 20.2. Matthews is second in the defensive zone to Kerfoot as well, and second in the offensive zone to Mitch Marner, but in all three zones he leads the Leafs’ forward group in contested puck battles, winning the highest percentage of anyone on the team.

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In the defensive zone, he also leads all Leafs forwards in rebound recoveries, aiding his goaltenders in cleaning things up and pushing play the other way.

Once again only Kerfoot has completed more successful defensive plays that remove possession from the opponent every 20 minutes than Matthews, who does so just over seven times every 20 minutes. And when Matthews is creating loose pucks, then recovering them, he also boasts the Leafs’ lowest turnover rate in the offensive and defensive zones, meaning he’s been great at managing the puck this season as well.

Sure, a big part of those glowingly excellent differentials come from Matthews’ excellent offensive ability, but his defensive play helps to create more of those opportunities for him.

THE QUESTION

This week Steve Dangle is thinking about the trade deadline, and he wants to know about a guy who has been rumoured to be on the move for a few years now.

“Does Chris Kreider hold the record for most times being almost traded without ever being traded? Obviously, a ton of teams want to acquire him, so what is it that makes him special?”

Kreider is the ultimate playoff acquisition, because he will immediately bowl over the opposing team’s goaltender and make it look like an accident, which makes things much easier.

That’s it, that’s the answer.

Okay, fine. Kreider is a very good player who has two-way versatility on top of being a blazing fast power forward. The issue for the Rangers if they want to move him, though, is that he hasn’t been at his best this season.

Kreider has fallen off a bit this year in two areas; both defensively and as a power forward/net front presence.

The drop off as a power forward hasn’t impacted his offensive production at all. He’s on pace to essentially replicate his previous season exactly on the surface, entirely due to a much bigger presence on the power play. Kreider has already tied his career high in power play goals with seven, and is just three points away from his career high in power play points at 13.

His even strength production has taken a hit though, likely because he’s shooting from further away and playing a slightly different style that he’s not used to. That shouldn’t scare any teams away who are looking for the player he usually is. Being asked to play a different role only makes him more versatile, and I highly doubt he couldn’t shift back to the net front to create chaos at any point.

The bigger worry for Kreider is in his defensive game falling off a bit. Kreider is a very disruptive defensive player, getting in lanes in all three zones and picking off attempted passes by opponents. How successful was Kreider at getting in lanes? When he attempted to block passes last season, he was successful in doing so 92.2 per cent of the time. He hasn’t dropped into a bad range in success rate this season at 85 per cent, but there has been a drop off.

Most of that hasn’t been in the defensive zone, but outside it, leading to less quick transition offence in the neutral zone, and fewer chances created off of forechecks.

The other area Kreider isn’t as engaged this year is recovering rebounds in his own zone. Normally he’s one of the league’s most engaged wingers in cleaning up shots that his goalies can’t control, but that’s been less apparent this season.

Personally, the drop offs in his play wouldn’t scare me off if I was looking to acquire Kreider, because he has a long history of having big impacts in all three zones. However, for teams who are looking to acquire a high-end two-way winger, the Rangers may not get the crazy high value offers they would have last year.

QUICK HITS
• Speaking of the Rangers, there’s probably another good reason Kreider’s numbers have taken a hit. Only one Rangers forward (300+ minutes) this season has managed a Corsi of 50 per cent or better, and it’s Artemi Panarin. Panarin has been on the ice for 752 shot attempts for and 751 against at 5-on-5, and he’s one of the best play-driving skaters in the sport. Talk about skating uphill.

• A sign of how defensively porous the Chicago Blackhawks are: among forwards with 300-plus minutes played, three Blackhawks are in the bottom four in slot passes allowed while on ice. Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and the league’s worst mark, Jonathan Toews.

• Kane has been having another great offensive season, but defensively… ouch. Of the 366 forwards to play 300-plus minutes at 5-on-5, he ranks 345th in inner slot shot differential at 38.1 per cent.

• The worst mark in the league in inner slot shot differential is another Blackhawk: Dylan Strome at just 30.4 per cent.

• Speaking of trade bait, if the Canadiens decide to move Tomas Tatar, he should fetch even more than Vegas gave up for him in 2018. He’s quietly leading the Canadiens in scoring, on pace for 70 points, and holds the fifth-best inner slot shot differential in the entire NHL among forwards at 64 per cent. Move up to a bigger sample size and he’s tied for third in the league at 58.7 per cent.

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