Auston Matthews needs to get more involved to jump-start Leafs’ offence

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews. (Chris O'Meara/AP Photo)

TORONTO — During the cool down from Auston Matthews‘ red-hot start, something has been nagging at me watching him play. The Toronto Maple Leafs star doesn’t seem to be making worse plays than in previous seasons, he just seems much less … involved.

Before last game and his success with John Tavares, it hadn’t seemed like Mitch Marner was playing on offence much, either. Their ice time was still up there (way up there, both top-10 among forwards), they weren’t playing poorly, necessarily, they just seemed to be chasing the game.

With the latter finally breaking out with a hat trick on Thursday night, I set out to figure out the Matthews conundrum. Twice this season he’s hit seven or more games without an even-strength goal, with his current cold snap at nine.

In the 2021-22 season, when Matthews scored 60 goals, he looked fast. He chugged through the neutral zone with speed, got after pucks and the play got buried in the opposition’s end, shift after shift. That season, no forward in the NHL spent a greater percentage of their ice time in the offensive zone, which lead to him looking dangerous on a near nightly basis.

Here’s where Matthews, and Marner, have spent their shifts this season. The numbers below track the puck and show “percentage of zone time” (just among forwards), as in, what zone is the puck in when they’re on the ice?

Matthews’ numbers have plummeted since his 60-goal season:

Auston Matthews

Puck in O-zone

Puck in D-zone

Puck in N-zone


44.7% (1st)




41.4% (35th)




38.6% (145th)



And Marner, his running mate, has seen a similar fall off:

Mitch Marner

Puck in O-zone

Puck in D-zone

Puck in N-zone


43.9% (8th)




40.2% (95th)




37.9% (176th)



Certainly, some of that is reflective of their team at large. And, of course, they’ve been playing together, so it makes sense that these numbers would decline hand-in-hand.

These are “descriptive” stats, and show something that’s happened, but they don’t tell us why. Another descriptive stat — not a why, but a what — is that their shot attempts are down. Matthews has dropped yearly from second to 29th to 68th in that category, while Marner has gone from 19th to 55th to 98th. But people assume the why is, “They need to shoot more.” But that’s like saying “They need to play in the offensive end more.” Obviously, but first you need to know the why before you can get to the how of fixing it.

It’s not that they aren’t shooting the puck at the same rate when they get shooting opportunities. They’re just getting fewer shooting opportunities per game because they aren’t in the right zone, because they don’t have the puck.

So the question for Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, and for them personally, is “Why don’t they have the puck?” Why are they spending so little time in the offensive zone?

In my digging, it looks like Matthews, who has been first in the NHL in stick-check takeaways the past two years, is still up there in those categories (third this season). He’s sixth in the NHL in blocked shots among forwards, and has doubled his “hit” rates from the previous season (which speaks to not having the puck often). So, it’s not like he isn’t working to get the puck back, or isn’t trying.

I’ve got a few theories for what’s going on, starting with greater team needs.

1. Team defence is worse

I’ve written about this one before, but if your D can’t break up plays and get you going the other way, you get stuck in your own zone a lot. If your D can’t make little creative passes, you can get hemmed in. The Leafs D-corps has sustained some injuries (which is one excuse), but there’s no doubt it’s a weaker group than they’ve had in the past back there.

Still, the Matthews lines have fared far worse than the Tavares line, which has largely been playing in front of the same D. It’s a concern, but not entirely to blame.

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2. No forechecking linemate

Matthews has spent most of his career alongside either Zach Hyman or Michael Bunting. One stat that Matthews always crushes is “forecheck chances,” which are defined as “a scoring chance as the result of a successful OZ takeaway before a loss of possession or zone exit.” You do not need to be the first man on the puck to register a forecheck chance, and alongside Hyman and Bunting he’s led the league.

He is, again, leading the league in that category (in terms of forecheck chances per game), but I’d argue it’s on the backs of a lot more forechecks (Calle Jarnkrok is 11th in the NHL in total dump-ins), not his usual high success rate. I don’t think Jarnkrok or Matthew Knies stop opposing breakouts with the frequency of Matthews’ previous linemates.

3. Not winning pucks back

This is related to the previous point. Matthews’ “loose pucks recovered per game” (a combination of found pucks and contested ones) over the past three seasons has fallen off too: 16.8, 15.6, 13.1. Marner is the same, 13.8, 13.4, 12.1.

It’s tough to say how Knies and Jarnkrok fare here compare to their previous linemates (one is a rookie, and for the other TOI and opposition and percentages all influence how this looks), but they don’t seem to come up with the puck as much as in previous years.

So, while we’re throwing things at the wall …

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4. Not in good shape?

I’m not saying this is why for Matthews. But if you’re the coach, you’re spitballing in the office, looking for ideas. Typically, if you see someone looking a step slower or without those great bursts you’re used to seeing, it’s a reasonable question. This is just a blanket thought that involves “Could the player have played through some illness?” or “Did the trip to Sweden have a negative effect?” or “Is something up off the ice?” and a host of other things that end with the same point: “The player just hasn’t doesn’t have his usual pop.”

At this point, the Leafs have broken Matthews up, and suddenly Marner had a red-hot game of his own. Fun fact? The NHL’s list of “puck battles won” this season is topped by Tavares, who has won 92 pucks, well ahead of Sean Couturier (85), Ryan O’Reilly (83), Tomas Hertl (83) and Alexander Barkov (82).

Tavares’ linemates (see: Willy Nylander) have had the puck, and they’ve played in the O-zone more than the Matthews line, and they’ve scored. It’s not a coincidence.

Although none of this gets to the true root of the problem, it does highlight a massive problem for the Leafs. If you’re going to be a top-heavy team, you need that top end to dominate. You need them to score those extra goals that make a Thursday at home against the Kraken a walk of a two-point regulation win, rather than yet another grind-em-out shootout victory. You need your difference-makers to make a difference.

Marner finally took a real positive step forward with a great performance. Since his hot start, Matthews has been ice-cold. If the Leafs are going to get into the realm of real Stanley Cup contenders, figuring out why has to be near the top of their to-do list.

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