Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews reached the 50-goal milestone for the first time in his career Thursday night when he slid home an empty-netter in an entertaining win over the Winnipeg Jets, becoming just the fourth player in the franchise’s storied history to accomplish the feat.
Matthews almost did it two years ago when, 70 games into his 2019-20 campaign, he sat at 47 goals and was one behind Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak for the league lead. However, that’s when the NHL shut down for the remainder of the regular season as COVID-19 was initially dubbed a global pandemic.
The star centre earned his first NHL goal title the following year by scoring 41 in just 52 games competing in the one-off Canadian Division, yet he never got to 50 thanks to the shortened 2020-21 schedule.
The two-time Lady Byng finalist is performing like a Hart Trophy frontrunner this season with a second consecutive goal title possibly right around the corner. He’s currently edging out Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers in the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy race.
Matthews also has his sights set on Toronto’s franchise record of 54 goals, set by Rick Vaive 40 years ago.
Perhaps more notable than the significance within the franchise is the fact Matthews became the first player from the United States to notch at least 50 in nearly a quarter century.
Matthews hadn’t even celebrated his first birthday when John LeClair scored 51 with the Flyers during the 1997-98 season, the last time an American hit the half-century mark.
Talent-wise, Matthews is one of the most gifted American players hockey has ever seen and he has undeniably developed into the NHL's best American goal scorer since Brett Hull.
Still only 24, Matthews is just the 11th American in NHL history to record a 50-goal season. It had happened only 20 total times before this season; six Americans have done it multiple times. Hull, who was born in Canada but represented the United States internationally, holds the American record with five 50-goal seasons.
Matthews, born in California and raised in Arizona, is the first American to hit 50 in the salary-cap era. Brian Gionta’s 48-goal season coming out of the lockout in 2005-06 was the previous high for an American in the cap era.
Matthews was one of only 16 players in NHL history to score 40 or more as a rookie, which helped him win the Calder Trophy five years ago, and since that 2016-17 season his goals-per-game rate has markedly improved.
Matthews had averaged 0.56 goals per game over his first four years in the NHL, but thanks to his 91 goals in 114 games played since the beginning of last season, his career average has ballooned to 0.63 goals per game.
It’s when you look at those per-game numbers that you realize Matthews is beginning to enter a class all his own – even compared to the great American goal scorers of years past.
Top goals-per-game rates among retired American skaters
Brett Hull 0.58 (Games: 1,269 | Goals: 741)**
Pat LaFontaine 0.54 (Games: 865 | Goals: 468)**
Joe Mullen 0.47 (Games: 1,062 | Goals: 561)**
Keith Tkachuk 0.45 (Games: 1,201 | Goals: 538)
Jimmy Carson 0.44 (Games: 626 | Goals: 275)
John LeClair 0.42 (Games: 967 | Goals: 406)
Jeremy Roenick 0.38 (Games: 1,363 | Goals: 513)
Kevin Stevens 0.38 (Games: 874 | Goals: 329)
Mike Modano 0.37 (Games: 1,499 | Goals: 561)**
Matthews is on pace to score 62 goals this season, assuming he suits up for all of Toronto’s 15 remaining games.
Hull is the only American to score more than 60 goals in a season. He did it three consecutive times to begin the 1990s.
Hull was 23 when he broke into the league on a full-time basis, though, and won his three goal titles at age 25, 26 and 27, so Matthews has a head start on Hull in that regard.
Matthews has 249 goals in his first 396 regular-season NHL appearances. Hull scored 309 in his first 396 games, for an average of 0.78 goals per game.
Keep in mind, NHL team’s averaged more than 3.5 goals per game in that era. Hull’s production eventually levelled off and he averaged 0.49 goals per game from 1992-93 until his retirement in 2005.
Will Matthews be able to maintain his current scoring rate through the remainder of his contract and beyond, or is the 0.80 goals-per-game pace he has set the past two years unsustainable?
One thing for certain is Matthews clearly reigns supreme among his contemporaries.
He has finished first or tied for first in goals per game among Americans in each of his first five seasons since being selected first overall by the Maple Leafs in 2016. He’s on pace to do it a sixth consecutive time.
Top goals-per-game rates among active American skaters
Auston Matthews 0.63 (Games: 396 | Goals: 249)
Kyle Connor 0.46 (Games: 372 | Goals: 172)
Alex DeBrincat 0.44 (Games: 354 | Goals: 157)
Jason Robertson 0.43 (Games: 112 | Goals: 48)
Jake Guentzel 0.42 (Games: 362 | Goals: 153)
Josh Norris 0.39 (Games: 109 | Goals: 43)
Patrick Kane 0.39 (Games: 1,093 | Goals: 425)
Max Pacioretty 0.38 (Games: 840 | Goals: 319)
Brock Boeser 0.37 (Games: 316 | Goals: 117)
Jack Eichel 0.37 (Games: 396 | Goals: 146)
As you can see, two of these players haven’t even registered 50 career goals, so even in cases where averages tend to fluctuate more readily due to small sample sizes, Matthews is still well ahead of the pack.
Despite the influx of U.S. talent in the league, there had been only 13 other instances before this season of an American registering 40 or more goals in the salary-cap era, excluding the times Matthews did it. Subsequently, every player on that list besides Matthews required at least 80 games to get there – it took Matthews 49 games to score his 40th last season and 53 games this season.
Scoring is up across the league this year, with teams averaging 3.11 goals per game – the highest rate since 2005-06 – and fellow Americans Chris Kreider and Kyle Connor joined Matthews in the 40-goal club in March. Both could also reach 50 for the first time in their respective careers.
No. 34 is No. 1 in total goals by an American dating back to his four-goal NHL debut in 2016. He boasts a whopping 75-goal cushion on Patrick Kane despite playing 39 fewer games.
Most regular-season goals by an American since 2016-17
1. Auston Matthews 249
2. Patrick Kane 174
3. Kyle Connor 172
4. Chris Kreider 162
5. Anders Lee 159
6. Alex DeBrincat 157
7. Jake Guentzel 153
8. Joe Pavelski 152
9. Cam Atkinson 150
10. Johnny Gaudreau 145
Matthews also recently moved ahead of Ovechkin to claim top spot among all players regardless of nationality.
Most regular-season NHL goals since 2016-17
1. Auston Matthews 249
2. Alex Ovechkin 247
3. Leon Draisaitl 227
4. Connor McDavid 216
5. David Pastrnak 213
6. Brad Marchand 196
7. Jake Guentzel 153
8. Sebastian Aho 176
9. Patrik Laine 175
10. Patrick Kane 174
Matthews’s 188 even-strength goals ranks first among all players since he entered the league, and his 42 game-winners are second only to McDavid’s 45 during that stretch.
AM34’s spectacular 0.80 goals-per-game rate since the start of last season would put him on pace for roughly 65 goals over the course of a full 82-game season. He played all 82 games as a rookie but hasn’t suited up for more than 70 in a single season since.
Only two players have had 60-goal seasons in the cap era: Ovechkin’s 65 in 2007-08 and Steven Stamkos’s 60 in 2011-12.
Matthews’s increased scoring rate the past two seasons has seen his career goals per game move ahead of Ovechkin’s career 0.61 average – at least for the time being.
Top goals-per-game rates in cap era
1. Auston Matthews 0.63 (Games: 396 | Goals: 249)
2. Alex Ovechkin 0.61 (Games: 1,263 | Goals: 772)
3. Steven Stamkos 0.52 (Games: 906 | Goals: 469)
4. Connor McDavid 0.49 (Games: 474 | Goals: 232)
5. Ilya Kovalchuk 0.48 (Games: 699 | Goals: 335)
6. David Pastrnak 0.47 (Games: 505 | Goals: 238)
7. Sidney Crosby 0.47 (Games: 1,096 | Goals: 511)
8. Kyle Connor 0.46 (Games: 372 | Goals: 172)
9. Leon Draisaitl 0.45 (Games: 546 | Goals: 248)
10. Evgeni Malkin 0.45 (Games: 972 | Goals: 441)
Matthews and Ovechkin are in rare company with those career averages. Only four others in hockey’s modern era – Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Pavel Bure and Wayne Gretzky – averaged 0.60 goals per game or better throughout their careers among players with at least 200 goals.
That’s elite company.
In fact, only seven players in NHL history have registered more goals than Matthews in their first 396 regular-season games. The only active player with more goals in that amount of time to begin their career is Ovechkin.
Most goals in first 396 NHL games
1. Wayne Gretzky 357
2. Mario Lemieux 318
3. Mike Bossy 315
4. Brett Hull 309
5. Alex Ovechkin 269
6. Jari Kurri 260
7. Teemu Selänne 257
8. Auston Matthews 249
When Ovechkin leapfrogged Jaromir Jagr to move into third place on the NHL’s all-time goals list, it reignited the debates about whether the Russian winger is the greatest pure goal scorer of all-time and if he will eventually break The Great One’s record.
We’ve already established Matthews is the greatest American scorer since Hull, but can Matthews work his way into the bigger conversation?
AM34's goals-per-game rates
2021-22: 0.81 (through 62 GP)
Hypothetically, if he can maintain his pace from the past two years, then he should hit 300 career goals in the second half of next season and would reach 500 goals before his 28th birthday.
Even if he were to produce at his more modest career average of 0.63 goals per game henceforth, he’d still get to 300 goals before then end of 2022-23 and would track to hit 500 goals before he played his 800th career game.
He’s in only his sixth season and longevity plays a role in any sort of GOAT debate. However, statistically speaking, he deserves a mention, especially considering he is improving year-over-year and is entering the prime his career.