Why Matthews' shift in play style raises ceiling on his post-season success

The HC panel breaks down the Maple Leafs statement win in completely dismantling the Cup contending Avalanche, and discuss the evolution of Auston Matthews’ goal scoring, where he’s finding a ton of success by going to the front of the net.

The standards for how we judge Auston Matthews are comically high, so please keep that in mind when I say that to my eye this season, something has looked … different.

Being that he won the Rocket Richard Trophy last season for scoring the most goals in the NHL, I wasn’t sure that I loved anything being different, so something just kinda felt a little off to me. I still thought he looked good, maybe just a little less offensively dangerous?

Were that to be true, it would be somewhat understandable. He missed pre-season and training camp with off-season wrist surgery, and we’ve seen how missing camp has affected players in the past. William Nylander struggled the year he missed camp, and Elias Pettersson has had himself an extremely slow start to the 2021-22 season.

So I set out to poke through a bunch of Matthews videos (and some numbers), and I reached a conclusion:

I’m an idiot.

Matthews has been superb for the Leafs, and in fact, has been doing the very thing some fans wanted to see from him after the team’s disappointing post-season exit where he scored just one time in seven games. He’s playing more of a playoff-style game, which is different, but is at least in theory the type of play that should be more sustainable when the checking gets tight and all eyes are on him.

Matthews has been playing closer to the blue paint and in traffic more, utilizing a tool of his that he probably hasn’t squeezed the most juice out of over the course of his career: his size. Because he’s graceful and agile when he carves up through the neutral zone, it can be easy to forget that the guy is a behemoth. He’s six-foot-three and playing at a super-lean 205-pounds this season. He is a strong, strong man with solid edges and balance, meaning he’s almost impossible to move.

Look at this tip-in goal he scores versus the Ducks. Somehow in their D-zone coverage the Ducks ended up with six-foot, 185-pound right-winger Troy Terry covering Matthews low, which is defensive suicide.

When Matthews decides to post him up, it’s like me posting up my five-year-old on his Fisher-Price hoop. The little guy can lean, and he can push all he wants, but I’ll be honest I barely know he’s there. I’ve got complete reign over the territory around the rack, and that’s Matthews versus Terry on this play. The latter doesn’t even know where to begin with his assigned human removal project.

Matthews redirects it home like Brodie is shooting a bucket of pucks for him to practise tips.

Matthews taking that ice has been a bit of theme, as he seems to have some awareness that once he gets there and establishes position, most players are at a loss on how to start getting him gone, meaning when pucks get there, he’s often getting two and three whacks at it.

It barely seems like the guy leans on him in that GIF above, but watch enough of his low shifts, and that’s what you’ll pick up over and again. Guys who try to eliminate him always seem to have done a poor job, because he’s strong and tough to control. Watch another giant of a man, Anze Kopitar, go with the hit and pin on Matthews below the goal line here. He’s even got the leg out to trap him below the goal line, which Matthews moves through like a turnstile.

There seems to have been either a growth in physical comfort or actual mental acceptance that the area below the goal line (and at the net) can be his playground, and he’s wielding that force like the tool it is. Look at how leaning into Bowen Byram for just a second along the boards is what gets Byram on his ass and chasing, which is why Mitch Marner even has an option to make that slick little slip pass.

If you’re someone who’s criticized the Leafs' top talents for not playing “gritty” enough, or for not playing “playoff-style hockey,” Matthews has made himself exempt from that critique. These aren’t the most accurate stats, but they ballpark things, and his takeaways per 60 are at the highest rate of his career, his hits per 60 are at the second-highest rate, and his hits taken per 60 has jumped up a lot from the two seasons prior. The only point those things make to me is a general one, that he’s in the thick of things a lot this year.

Now, if you were to just look at his raw stats you may feel like things are lagging a bit. His rates of goals and assists are behind where they’re usually at on a per-game basis, but those things are likely the product of the way hockey goes sometimes.

Last season, when he was on the ice for a goal for, over 80 per cent of the time he got a point on the play. This year it’s been just over 60 per cent, the lowest rate of his career. Some of that is luck. He’s also had a couple seasons in his career where he’s shot over 18 per cent (last year he was 18.5 per cent), and this year he’s at 14 per cent, even after potting three in his last game. The points for Matthews, they’re going to come in bunches, particularly because of where he’s causing action when he’s on the ice.

The images below are unblocked shot rates that have taken place when Matthews is on the ice for the Leafs. The higher the plus on the offensive end the better, the lower the minus on the defensive end the same. Shots for are good, shots against are bad. Here’s what Matthews has done this season, via HockeyViz and the very helpful Micah Blake McCurdy. If numbers aren’t your thing just look at the pictures, which should speak volumes.

Last year the team was exceptional in both these areas with Matthews out there too, but as you can see, still not as good as this year.

It’s a blood bath for the Leafs in the O-zone with him on the ice this season, and it’s all over the other team’s crease and low zone.

So no, his raw totals aren’t his personal bests, but Matthews is currently setting personal bests in every possible play-driving metric I’m aware of. He’s at his career-best Corsi percentage, Fenwick, shots, chances and expected goals percentages too.

Somehow the guy currently has zero primary assists at 5-on-5. How long do you think that’s gonna last?

The safe bet is “not very.”

We’ve discussed Matthews play on our podcast Real Kyper and Bourne (which if you’re into Leafs stuff, you may enjoy), and Nick Kypreos has made the case that this is precisely what he wants to see from the Leafs' big horse up front. He notes that he doesn’t have to win the Rocket to have had a good year, he has to adapt a style of play that can come through when the going gets tough. And so raw numbers be damned, Matthews' play so far has to be considered a big plus, as I’d say that’s exactly what he’s done so far this season.

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