TORONTO — Auston Matthews was once described by former teammate Connor Carrick as a “violent offensive player.”
And that was before the Toronto Maple Leafs sniper woke up every day of this pandemic-shortened season and chose to inflict the kind of violence that should be celebrated most in the sport.
This is one of those rare times where the superlatives match the accomplishment: With 40 goals through 49 games played — with no one else in the NHL having scored more than 31 — Matthews can start laying claim to the greatest goal-scoring season in Maple Leafs history.
Consider that you have to go back more than 25 years to find any player from any franchise that’s eclipsed his current mark of .82 goals per game, all the way back to Mario Lemieux’s 69 goals in 70 games during the 1995-96 season.
Consider that even if Matthews doesn’t score again in the final three games of the season he’d still match Charlie Conacher’s franchise record of .77 goals per game from 1934-35. And betting on Matthews not to score at the moment is a quick way to get separated from your money.
“It’s incredible. What he’s doing right now, what he’s on pace for, this doesn’t come around very often,” said teammate Joe Thornton. “What he’s doing is exceptional.”
Matthews has cracked the holy trinity of scoring seasons in the NHL’s salary cap era, right up there in the neighbourhood of Alex Ovechkin’s 2007-08 (65 goals in 82 games) and Steven Stamkos’s 2011-12 (60 goals in 82 games).
What those players accomplished across a full campaign should be placed ahead of Matthews in 2021, but they shouldn’t completely dim the lights on his brilliance. He’s had completely distinct runs of 19 goals in 19 games and 18 goals in 18 games.
And when he scored No. 40 late in Toronto’s 5-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, it gave him at least a goal in 61 per cent of the games he’s played this year.
“Incredible. He makes it look so easy. It’s unreal to watch,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “At this level, in this league, it’s extremely hard to score, so to do it as often as he does — as consistent as he is and dominant he is — it’s extremely impressive.”
This is a case of preparation meeting opportunity.
Matthews arrived at training camp “on a mission,” in the words of Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, and he’s been given the chance to play the majority of his 5-on-5 minutes alongside another world-class talent in Mitch Marner.
Those two connected yet again on Thursday’s milestone marker, with Marner slithering through coverage in the offensive zone to create enough deception for Matthews to get off a shot that beat Jake Allen under the left pad.
It’s no coincidence that the Leafs are on the cusp of clinching just their third division title since 1962-63 — needing one more point or an Edmonton Oilers loss to secure it — while Matthews is in line to claim a rare piece of individual hardware for the organization.
It’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll take home the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer. He’ll also garner Hart Trophy consideration in a year where everyone is competing for second place because of Connor McDavid’s preposterous assault on a 100-point season.
“Him and McDavid are the top in the league,” Allen said of Matthews. “You can’t teach what he has.”
What he has shown is that you can learn how to round out your game. He’s become a difference-maker in all areas of the ice, using his six-foot-three frame to body opponents off pucks while also deploying a deft hand-eye to win them back with his stick.
This was the third time Matthews hit the 40-goal plateau and it took 33 fewer games than when he first accomplished the feat as a NHL rookie. There were no empty calories involved, either. Thirty of his goals came at even strength and none of them were scored into an empty net.
“He’s not going to slow down,” said Keefe. “I have no doubts he’s just going to keep pushing himself and our team to just keep getting better here.”
Matthews is completing his fifth NHL season at age 23, which tends to be right in the absolute productive prime for most offensive players.
This will be a year to remember. He’s absolutely terrorized North Division goaltenders and scored goals at a rate never before seen by a player wearing blue and white. Tavares lauded his “incredible presence” while veteran newcomer Nick Foligno recently spoke of “this aura around him where you can tell he expects greatness out of himself.”
He’s delivered it, too.
“I can’t imagine the amount of pressure he has on his shoulders,” said Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell. “It’s funny you just don’t even think of it because he just doesn’t give you any (reason to). … Once the puck drops you know 34’s going to bring it and that’s what he does every single night for us.”
Matthews is so ruthless that he’s basically good for a goal every game.