The pros and cons of keeping Auston Matthews in the lineup to chase 70 goals

Watch as Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews fires a wrist shot to score his 66th goal of the season, passing Alex Ovechkin's record for most goals in a campaign during the salary cap era.

To consider the pros and cons of a debate, I like the image of an old-fashioned scale that is weighed by some facts on both sides and makes the heavier side become self-evident. That’s all I intend to do to start this topic, before interjecting with my opinion at the end.

In this case, we have a debate about whether Auston Matthews – in hot pursuit of the NHL’s first 70-goal season in over 30 years – should stay in the lineup and chase that milestone, or come out and rest up for playoffs.

And so, let’s place some things on the scale, shall we?


• The rare feat of 70 goals is history. Only 14 times has a player scored 70 goals in an NHL season before, and only eight players have ever done it. This is not just getting 50 (which is impressive enough), it’s orders of magnitude more difficult and rare.

• It’s even more rare in the “new NHL,” where nobody has accomplished the feat in over three decades.

• Some think 70 goals would be enough to win some major personal awards, whether the Hart, or Ted Lindsay, to go along with the Rocket Richard. (Even Selke votes, though any additional goals shouldn’t move that needle.)

• This matters to the fans. It’s a big story in Toronto right now if you talk to just about anybody who follows the Leafs. Again, 70 is a huge number.

• Staying hot and playing hard for a couple extra games heading into the playoffs isn’t some guarantee Matthews will play worse when he gets there. We can’t know. Maybe he’ll play better after staying in the lineup and that it’s just conjecture rest will make him better.


• The Leafs haven’t had real playoff success, they need Matthews at his best to do so, he’s played a ton of hockey (seventh in total time-on-ice among forwards), and most teams and their specialists agree that resting your best players before the playoffs has value, as they can be a grind.

• He’s already done the personal accomplishment thing, winning the Hart Trophy, the Lindsay and the Rocket.

• Resting Matthews eliminates the worst-case scenario of an injury in the final few games. Connor McDavid is currently day-to-day, for example – he should be OK for the playoffs, but it can happen. Getting hurt in a game Matthews didn’t need to play would be devastating.

• Hockey culture is heavily “logo on front over name on back,” meaning people value the pursuit of team goals over personal ones. At this point, the only negative thing that could be said about Matthews is that he prioritized himself (or the team prioritized him) over the greater team – his actual goal scoring ability is beyond reproach.

• Is something around a 68-goal season followed by two games of rest (to prioritize playoffs) much less impressive? I’ve heard the argument that 70 is an arbitrary number people like because it’s round, and Matthews’ real feat is the distance between him and the NHL’s second-best scorer.

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The Leafs are in a very strange predicament with Matthews, who needs four goals in the final four games of the season to hit 70. Considering he’s nearly a goal-per-game player over the past 55 games that milestone seems viable, if not likely.

At the same time, the Maple Leafs will only go as far in the playoffs as Matthews takes them. He was very good against Tampa Bay in round one last year and they won, quiet in round two and they lost. They need peak Matthews driving a line.

The way the Leafs’ schedule ends also factors into this conversation. They have four games left, but finish up next week on a back-to-back April 16-17. With the playoffs likely to start on April 20, that would be a perfect time for him to enjoy the fruits of his and his team’s work to that point, take the time off, and rest up while eliminating any risk of injury.

The problem is that those last two games might matter. The Leafs are three points behind Florida with a game in hand, and their last two games are against…Florida and Tampa Bay. It could very well be a “win and get home ice advantage” type game, which might force Matthews into the lineup.

They’re also going to be playing that very Florida team in round one of the playoffs, which is relevant too. The problem there is if he’s in the lineup for that game for any reason at all, he’s a target. Florida would recognize his value, and take every conceivable run possible at him to “set the tone” for the series ahead.

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If you only cared about the playoffs and trying to set yourself up to win that first round (and beyond), you might consider taking Matthews out for that Panthers game where he’d be a target, and instead play him against Tampa Bay…or don’t play him in either. There is no scenario where you’d say playing on back-to-back nights just a few days before the playoffs is the best option for a player’s legs and energy level.

But with the potential for team stakes in those final games (home ice advantage), and the magnitude of the 70-goal milestone, Matthews and the Leafs are going to have some tough choices to make. Right now they’re saying all the right things – Sheldon Keefe is indicating the priority is to be ready for the playoffs – but when it comes down to crunch time, are they really going to sit a guy who has 68 goals with two games to go?

From a team level, Thursday’s game against New Jersey is only relevant for Toronto’s pursuit of home ice (which they’d be smart to want), so ideally one of two things happens for Matthews and the Leafs in that game: either he scores three or gets blanked.

Another game where he scores once or twice will just further complicate the question and not provide any clarity. If Matthews is on 66 goals with two games to go, it becomes very easy to ask him to watch the last two games rather than likely finish with 67 or 68 goals instead.

If he’s at 69 goals after the Devils game, they’d still have another game before the season-ending back-to-back for him to get to 70 and make the decision easy.

The Maple Leafs of this era — the Auston Matthews era — are going to be remembered for the wrong reasons right now, despite all the remarkable hockey, the eight-straight playoff appearances, and the years of 100-plus points. They’ve been awesome. But their legacy right now would be a group who took all the money they could and fell short as a team. They will have more chances to change that narrative and be vindicated in the end, but not many more. This year offers a very legitimate chance to do it.

If the Leafs roll Matthews out there to chase 70 goals rather than rest, and then they fall short in the playoffs, make no mistake that it will become part of his legacy in Toronto. Of course, he could score 70, and they could go on to win too, but the Leafs certainly aren’t even a top-five Stanley Cup contender as of today, so following up the milestone with playoff success isn’t the betting-favourite outcome right now.

If Matthews sits out down the stretch and they disappoint in the playoffs anyway, you get neither the milestone nor the success, but at least they could say they had their priorities in order. I think there’s merit to that with the way some fans view this Leafs core.

The don’t have to decide today. But I do think what happens on Thursday (and how the Panthers do in their games) will impact the factors that go into making Toronto’s decisions. Matthews is on the cusp of history, for which he may be remembered forever. But the value of being forever remembered for scoring 70 goals would be far outstripped by the thin possibility of winning a Conn Smythe Trophy, en route to having your entire team remembered forever, and this era of Leafs hockey vindicated.

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