When asking the question "can Auston Matthews score 50 goals in 50 games" there are a couple of important things to consider.
What’s working for him and what’s working against him? It seems unlikely that any player could accomplish the feat in today’s game, but Matthews has 18 goals in his first 19 games of the season and it feels like he’s about to score almost every time he shoots the puck.
Before drilling down on this there is an important distinction that needs to be made in that the NHL officially recognizes "50 in 50" as a player who scores that amount in his team's first 50 games. Matthews has missed a game so he would actually need to score 50 in his first 49 games of the season to join the exclusive club, assuming he plays in each of Toronto’s next 30 games.
So, what does Matthews have working in his favour?
For starters, goals haven’t been hard to come by in general in the North Division, which is the highest-scoring division in hockey. The Maple Leafs' power play is tied for first in the NHL at 33.3 per cent despite going 0-for-7 in Monday’s loss to Calgary. Mitch Marner, one of the top playmakers in the game, feeds him pucks at both even-strength and on the man advantage, while Matthews has one of the most lethal shots in the league.
The evolution of Matthews' one-timer has elevated him from elite to perhaps the best goal scorer in the game today. Matthews scored just seven, one-timer goals in his first three NHL seasons -- a total of 212 games.
He’s scored 21 since the start of last season.
On the other hand, history shows us that Matthews is climbing a very steep hill in his quest to score 50 goals in his first 50 games. The last player to accomplish the feat was Cam Neely in 1993-94. Neely isn't an official "50 in 50" guy because he didn’t score 50 in his team's first 50 games -- he only played 49 games total that season, but he did score 50 goals.
In the 27 years since, only 11 other players have started the season on the kind of torrid goal scoring pace Matthews has with at least 18 goals in their first 20 games. The most recent to do it was Steven Stamkos, who scored 19 goals in his first 20 games in 2010. Stamkos played all 82 games that season and finished with 45 goals. Not 45 in his first 50 games, but 45 total.
Scoring 50 in 50 is not easy to do.
Including Neely’s unofficial 50-in-50 season, seven of the 12 players who started as hot as Matthews has since 1993-94 went on to score 50 goals that season.
Some pretty elite company on that list. Other than Neely, only one of those players was able to score 50 goals in his first 50 games -- Mario Lemieux, who finished with an astounding 69 goals in 70 games in 1995-96.
Even Super Mario had to battle to accomplish the feat. Lemieux entered his 50th game of the season with 48 goals and scored twice to reach the milestone.
So, the question becomes can Matthews do what players like Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla were unable to in the seasons we referenced? That’s a tough ask.
Matthews' shooting percentage this season sits at 23.1 per cent. Scoring on nearly a quarter of your shots for 50 games simply does not happen very often. Matthews is currently on pace for 226 shots on goal this season. In the salary cap era, only Leon Draisaitl has taken as many shots and put up a shooting percentage north of 20 per cent. Draisaitl finished the 2018-19 season wth 231 shots on goal and 50 goals for a shooting percentage of 21.7 per cent. Draisaitl did all of this in 82 games.
Matthews, like any player who runs hot when it comes to goal scoring, is outperforming his expected goals total (a reflection of shot quality and quantity) by a considerable margin. That said, elite goal scorers routinely score at a higher rate than an expected goals model will suggest they should as they possess abilities that average players do not. In Matthews' case, his world-class shot, amongst other things, helps set him apart.
However, Matthews is far exceeding his own historical rate of outperforming his expected goals.
The likeliest outcome, assuming Matthews plays in all remaining games, is a goal total somewhere in the 38- to 43-goal range, which is still incredible!
Not many players score at a pace around a goal per game for 15-plus games, which Matthews has done this season. Fewer do it from the drop of the puck on opening night. But, as history tells us, even fewer are able to maintain that pace for 50 games, which is what makes the milestone such an impressive one. It seems untouchable and very well might be in today’s game.
If Matthews and his wingman Marner stay healthy, is it possible for Matthews to score 50 in 50? Possible, sure. Bet against Matthews' goal scoring ability at your own peril. However, given how historically difficult it’s been to accomplish the feat, even for some of the top goal scorers in the history of the league, is it probable? No, it is not.
In saying that, Matthews will probably bury a couple Wednesday night and the debate as to whether he can or can’t will rage on.