The Maple Leafs quickly found themselves at a disadvantage Thursday night because of their goaltending woes. But it was Auston Matthews’ 44th goal of the season that pulled them within one in the third, just before William Nylander tied up the score.
Not long ago, the Rocket Richard favourites were all very closely matched — even jostling for position multiple times in a single night. When we last checked in, it was Kreider leading the way with 30, followed by Draisaitl and Alex Ovechkin behind by one. At the time, Matthews was fourth in the race with 25, in fewer games played. Even when accounting for ice time, though, he still only ranked in second. But, there were signs of sustainability that could power him to the top that are still shining through.
On the surface, with 44 goals in 55 games, Matthews is on pace to score 63 in a 79-game season (seeing as he’s missed three tilts so far this season). How plausible is it for him to reach that?
Thirteen of the centre’s goals have come off the man-advantage, where the Maple Leafs have the second-best expected goal rate in the league. Given that strength on the power play, which is highly influenced by Matthews’ play, there’s reason to believe he’ll be able to maintain that.
While the power play is obviously a key part of the game where he has more time and space to do damage, it’s not guaranteed a player will get those opportunities each night — especially when they draw as few as the Leafs’ leading forward.
But the area to really focus on is 5-on-5 play, where he’s net 28 goals so far, since that’s where the majority of the game is played.
There are two key factors to consider: how often he shoots and where those attempts come from.
At 5-on-5, Matthews attempts 20.6 shots per 60 which puts him sixth in the league behind Timo Meier, Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Viktor Arvidsson in frequency.
About 55.5 per cent of those shots come from the slot, which the heat map below helps highlight as so many of his shots are concentrated to that home plate area in front of the net.
In fact, only one player rates ahead of his 11.4 slot attempts per 60, Andrew Mangiapane of the Flames. About 55 per cent of Matthews’ attempts connect on net, which shakes out to rate of 6.3 slot shots on goal; that moves him down to sixth in the league. But no one scores at a higher
Where he rates even more favourably is slot shots generated off the cycle, with 3.98 per 60 that trail only Mangiapane and MacKinnon.
It’s not just Matthews piling on shots on the cycle; him, Michael Bunting (12th) and Mitch Marner (24th) all rank in the top-25 in the league, among forwards, in scoring chances created off the cycle. That contributes to that line’s impressive 66 per cent expected goals rate. So when this line’s on the ice, goaltenders generally are just peppered in this quality looks for Toronto’s top trio. Cycle plays have led to 11 of the centre’s scores this season — including this one against the Oilers.
Another consideration in Matthews’ scoring is the variety of his shooting. He can beat goaltenders in so many different ways, in such quick developing plays, that makes him so tricky to anticipate and difficult to stop. This season, at 5-on-5, he’s scored five backhand goals, two slap shots, four tip-ins, two wrap-arounds, and 15 snap/wrist shots.
Take this sequence where he passes to his teammate, leaves the zone, circles back, then winds up for a more uncharacteristic one-timer from the outside. This shot probably wasn’t expected, but it’s still effective.
Or, there’s the most quintessential Matthews play, where he can quickly stickhandle in tight and finish with a wrister.
What’s also playing into his sustainable scoring is passing.
Now, Matthews himself is quite the passer; he 12th in the league in attempts in the offensive zone and that ability obviously shows on the scoresheet as well. The fact that he can keep defenders guessing if he’s going to take the shot or set up one of his opponents adds another challenge into the mix — especially since he sees the ice so well, can anticipate plays, and react at such high speeds. This isn't a one-dimensional player who is always expected to be the shooter, just generally.
But there’s also who sets him up. At 5-on-5, he’s played over 57 percent of his time with Marner whose offensive zone pass attempt rate lands him fourth in the league, and the leader in passes to the slot: the area Matthews so often shoots from, with 19.3 per 60. With a completion rate of almost 42 per cent, Marner’s successfully sends the puck to that area of the ice at the second-best rate in the league, behind only Robert Thomas.
So the leading player on that line has such a direct impact on plays, even before taking the shot, and he has the support from his linemates.
That pre-shot movement factors into Matthews’ expected goal generation, in addition to his shooting. He leads the lead at 5-on-5 with an expected goal total of 19.3. When accounting for ice time, he slides to third (1.28 per 60), behind Mangiapane and Bunting.
That total of 19.3 is before accounting for finishing talent, with Matthews obviously has a ton of.
That rate puts him on pace for 28 5-on-5 goals for the year in 79 games, which he’s already matched. And in all situations, his expected goal total (30.9), puts him on pace for 44 goals — another number he’s just matched. Maybe to think he’ll keep scoring at this pace is excessive, seeing as he’s already 13.1 above expectations. But as the season progresses, Matthews is only going to continue creating offence — which he’s already shown he can at such a high rate in terms of volume and quality — so the expectations will continue to grow along with the final result.
And if this season isn’t enough to instill some faith in his goal-scoring ability, just look at his career so far. Since entering the league in 2016-17, no one has net as many 5-on-5 goals as Matthews’ 164. The next best is Connor McDavid’s 129, followed by Ovechkin’s 126. Even widening the lens to all situations keeps the centre atop the list with 243, though that closes the gap between the first and second-best with Ovechkin only behind by two. And that’s before accounting for ice time, as Matthews trails the likes of Ovechkin and McDavid both. Even after shifting to scoring rates, he still leads in both all situations and 5-on-5 play.
Matthews has quickly become one of the best goal scorers in today’s NHL, and this season is no different — he’s jumped ahead in the scoring race, and it’s going to be tough for anyone to keep pace if he keeps up this MVP-calibre play.
Data via Sportlogiq.