Make no mistake, Auston Matthews was one of the best goal scorers in the NHL last year, and the year before. So “Auston Matthews is good at goal scoring” isn’t exactly shocking the masses as column topics go.
But I do think it’s fair to say that he’s emerged from a pack of elite snipers to be the preeminent goal scorer in the league today, or at worst finds himself in a class that’s just him, David Pastrnak and the eternal Alex Ovechkin.
Matthews, though, is my choice to win the most Rocket Richard Trophies in the years to come.
So what’s changed this year that gives me that belief? How does someone already so good at something get better? Why is it that, when forecasting his goal output over 56 games, matching last year’s total of 47…seems attainable?
Well, there’s a few reasons…
He’s lighter and skating better
The actual weight loss has been well-documented. He played last year at 224 pounds and worked this off-season with personal trainer Ian Mack to get leaner without losing strength, and to gain flexibility.
In theory that would help him in a variety of ways, from injury prevention to energy levels and of course, it should help his speed. And, yeah, that part at least definitely panned out.
Reports were that by the time Matthews stepped on the scale to start the season he was 210, down some 14 pounds, or as they’d say in the UK, the lad is down a stone.
Where I notice it most is through the neutral zone. It always seemed that when Matthews lugged the puck up the ice in the past, it was going to result in one (still reasonably dangerous) outcome. He was going to approach the defender, then try and shoot it through that player, using his patented angle change and deadly shot. Sometimes it went in, sometimes it didn’t, but what was coming was all but certain.
Now I see him putting defenders on their heels because he’s got the pace to beat them wide. As that gets further established, he should see worse gaps (with D sagging off an extra half-step to prevent getting beat wide), meaning that “shoot through the D” option could become more dangerous (given it’s from a half-step closer in), and there could be more room above those D to make plays.
We saw him pass JT Miller in an awkwardly developing play:
We saw him adeptly cruise through the middle like a speedboat en route to this beauty:
And there just seems to be more pace on plays across the blue line that haven’t ended in goals:
I mean he’s flying in that clip.
This was a guy whose greatest strength wasn’t just his shot, it was finding shots, finding soft spots to get those lasers off. When you’re lighter and have another gear you’re not just able to go faster, you’re able to go slower knowing you can get back up to that speed without massive effort, meaning you’re able to change pace more regularly.
For someone who's good at finding soft spots, that ability should open up more holes than ever before.
He’ll shoot at every spot, with no default
One of Matthews’ strengths has always been unpredictability, and finding more space this season has allowed him the ability to be more selective with where he shoots.
When you’re under duress, you usually auto-fire it at what are good scoring spots (which would generally be up high these days). The trend I’ve got below is waaaaay too early to label a legitimate change in his game, but it does highlight his penchant for variety, which keeps goalies off balance like a pitcher with a good mix of pitches. (Thanks to the people at Sportlogiq for this data.)
Two things that interest me: how well he’s always spread his shooting around the net, but also the change in how often he’s gone low this season.
Matthews’ goal breakdown in 2019-20:
High Blocker - 13 (27.7%)
High glove - 23 (48.9%)
Low Blocker - 4 (8.5)
Low glove - 1 (2.1%)
5-Hole - 6 (12.8%)
76.6% of his goals went high.
Matthews’ goal breakdown this season:
High blocker - 1 (9.1%)
High glove - 2 (18.2%)
Low Blocker - 2 (18.2%)
Low glove - 2 (18.2%)
5-hole - 3 (27.3%)
63.6% of his goals went low.
Maybe the low/high data isn’t that relevant (mandatory “small sample” mention here), maybe most of it doesn’t tell us much at all, but the one thing I do believe we can glean here is that he doesn’t have a default shooting spot, so goalies have no way to cheat on him.
Further to that point…
He shoots from everywhere
I know goalies are never supposed to relax, but they’re human. A guy with the puck out on the half-wall likely doesn’t have goaltenders set in the same way they are for a breakaway. Matthews capitalizes on that by shooting from basically everywhere, before most players would think to.
Here’s where Connor McDavid has been dangerous from over his career:
Welp, directly in front of the net. Shocker. That makes sense, given how often he beats defenders and gets in alone.
(“Shootiness,” by the way, is the likelihood a player is the one taking the shot compared to an average player at that position. Forwards average taking 22 per cent of their team’s shots while they’re on the ice – the chart above has McDavid at 23 per cent, given his “+1” shootiness. I’m writing more on this next week.)
David Pastrnak is crazy shooty, and here’s where he typically fires from:
Inside the Ovi spot, and a strip on the right side, too.
Now here’s Auston Matthews:
This looks like a scene out of Dexter, just little bits of red all over the place. If you’re a goalie it’s probably best to never get comfortable if Matthews has the puck inside the blue line.
There’s a goal that sticks out in my mind as rare, in that it’s uncommon to be able to attribute any one single tally to something usually “unquantifiable,” but this one … this one I think you can.
In 2019 James Neal was coming off a down year -- a really, really down year actually -- in which he scored just seven times in 63 games (after scoring 25 the year before and averaging more than that for many years prior). He joined the Oilers that off-season, and in his second game with them he scored twice. That had to feel like the start of something good, no?
In his third game, he already had a hat trick in his back pocket with most of the third period remaining, and he was feeling it. On a rush he faded essentially down into the corner, below the faceoff circles, opened up, and whipped a bad angle shot along the ice with the type of scoring intent you only see from someone who believes absolutely anything might go in for them at that moment.
This to me is a pure confidence goal.
Well, that’s Auston Matthews on every shot right now. His game-winner over the Canucks Monday was an on-the-ice slapshot that wasn’t just put on net to be put on net, it was meant to go through the goalie. Everything he hits he intends to go in, and that’s not a single game “feeling it” attribute. That’s just the way it is.
Peak hockey age
I’ll keep this one short, but I’m an established agist when it comes to hockey. The sweeping majority of Hall of Fame point producers have a statistical peak on the back of their hockey card right about where Matthews is in his career. He’s that perfect mix of young, but not new.
The defence in the North Division, by and large, is about as sturdy as a vanilla wafer. It’s bad! We don’t have to dance around that. Even Montreal – who most assume to be the most stout of the group - isn’t likely among the league’s best five defensive teams.
Four of the other five teams currently sit in the bottom half of the league in goals-against per game, with Ottawa and Vancouver sitting dead last. The Oilers have conceded fewer goals than just six NHL teams.
The Flames, the best of the rest, are the grocery stick of the statistical table, with 15 teams worse and 15 teams better in that category. So … there are goals to be found in the North this season.
As I said off the top, Matthews isn’t just arguably the best goal scorer in the game today (depending where you sit on Pastrnak and Ovechkin), he’s been in that tier of elite players on his way up to this pedestal.
The stats bear out that while the flower may finally be in full bloom, it’s been awfully pretty for a while now.
I’ll leave you with a handful of further-validating stats courtesy our wonderful @SNStats department, which you should immediately follow on Twitter and bother with questions, because they often dig up tons of interesting goodies.
His 169 career goals are the 2nd-most in the NHL since his debut in 2016-17.
He has an NHL-high five game-winning goals through 12 games this season. Only three players in NHL history have required fewer games than Matthews to reach five GWG in a season.
His five GWG this season matches his total from his previous three seasons.
Highest percentage of team goals scored this season:
Most consecutive games played with a goal in Maple Leafs franchise history:
And, given Wednesday's and Saturday's matchup, we’ll close with this: the goalies Matthews has scored most of his career goals against...
We’ll see how the best defence in the North fares against the best goal-scorer in the division, facing a goalie who -- so far -- hasn’t been able to figure the Leafs' young goal-scoring machine out.