TLN Top 20 Leafs: #1 Auston Matthews

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Come on, did you think it would be anyone else?

Since the day he was selected first overall in the 2016 NHL draft, Auston Matthews has been the face of the Leafs through every triumph and heartbreak. He set the tone for a new era in his first game by scoring four goals in an overtime loss and then proceeded to smash franchise records and add to his trophy cabinet. Toronto’s hockey team has been a competitive bunch for the last half-decade thanks in no small part to the play of the guy who was recently named to represent his country in the 2022 Olympics.

Of course, there is the caveat that all five years have ended in the same outcome and no clear signs that things are going to change for the better. Matthews has certainly proven his ability to turn up his game in the playoffs more often than not, but he is fresh off his worst showing yet and, alongside Mitch Marner, was the face of the team’s most recent collapse. So for better or for worse, the Leafs will only go as far as Matthews can take them, and that remains the case this time around where the fanbase’s anger towards the core’s failures is at its peak. That is why he rounds out TLN’s ranking of the top Leafs as the undisputed best player on the team.

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Five Interesting Stats

Goals per Game Hits Game Winning Goals # of times on the cover of an EA Sports NHL game Goals in the 2021 Playoffs
0.79 57 12 2  1

You don’t need me to convince you that Matthews is incredibly important to the Leafs because he has proven it in spades since his NHL debut. One of the primary reasons for that is his natural ability to put the puck in the back of the net at a consistent rate.

The 2019-20 campaign appeared to be the breakthrough he was looking for to top the NHL goal-scoring leaders and was in a tight three-way race with David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin before a global pandemic halted that battle prematurely. When the world went into self-isolation, Matthews sat one goal short of the league lead and thus missed out on his first Rocket Richard Trophy by the slimmest of margins. He responded by scoring at one of the greatest rates the NHL has ever seen since the turn of the millennium, at 0.79 goals per game in 2021. That is the third-highest rate in that span, behind only Ovechkin (2007-08) and Mario Lemieux (2000-01). Had it been a full 82-game season, Matthews would have finished with a ridiculous 65 goals, which would have been tied for the 23rd best single-season record ever. Oh, and he did all of this on a sore wrist that bothered him throughout the year.

Say what you will about it being a pandemic shortened season, but that is some impressive company to be part of and it’s hard to argue that it might be the greatest scoring season for a Leaf ever. He finished eight goals clear of the second place Connor McDavid and took home his first major trophy since winning the Calder after his rookie campaign.

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His scoring abilities are obviously what makes him stand out among the NHL’s top players, but Matthews has also developed into a well-rounded player over the years and could become nearly unstoppable once he reaches his peak. He has always been effective at swiping pucks away and protecting them thanks to being blessed with a long reach. His size has also made him a tough player to slow down, and now there’s the bonus of implementing more of a physical style into his bag of tricks. Matthews finished last year with a career-best 57 hits, placing him seventh on the team and third amongst the forwards in that department. It may not seem like a lot upon first glance, but the previous three seasons (40, 28, & 16 respectively) saw him dish out far fewer than this recent uptick.

It is a positive development for a player who was graced with a big body and has been slowly learning how to use it to his advantage. This is also a clear sign of a player who is far more confident in his overall abilities and has developed a willingness to be an imposing threat at each end of the ice. As a result, he was granted more responsibilities and the trust of the coaching staff to be relied upon in critical situations. The evolution into a more complete athlete has made him the star of two EA Sports NHL games in the last three years, and it makes a lot of marketing sense whether you’d like to admit it or not.

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But while the 2021 campaign was a historic one for Matthews, there is one more number that will define that year in the worst way possible: one. It’s how many goals he amassed during their first-round series against the Canadiens that resulted in perhaps the most embarrassing collapse for a team that always tends to up the ante for heartbreak. It wasn’t due to a lack of trying though, as Matthews fired a personal best 35 shots in the playoffs (61 total attempts) and a lot of them were in high-danger areas. It resulted in a ludicrously low 3.85 shooting percentage at 5v5, and this series may have a different outcome if just one or two more of his shots were able to find the twine. This isn’t to excuse him for his lack of scoring in the playoffs, but it put things into perspective of how snakebitten Matthews was in trying to solve playoff Carey Price more than once.

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Last season

Matthews was slotted alongside Marner from start to finish and the pair finished in the top five in NHL scoring for the season. The third member of that line was either Zach Hyman or Joe Thornton, which resulted in a trio that was the clear-cut best on the team, although the overall track record suggested that Hyman was the better of the two options that were at the Leafs’ disposal. It’s easy to look back on that and grumble considering the two struggled immensely in the postseason, but it’s hard to argue with Sheldon Keefe’s hesitancy to break up one of the most lethal duos in the league today.

On a team that struggled to score on the man-advantage, Matthews was the Leafs’ best by being the only player in 2021 to surpass double digits in PP goals with 10. He was also the runaway leader on the squad with 12 game-winners, including two that were scored in overtime. This increased reliance and responsibility from the coaching staff resulted in Matthews finishing with the highest TOI average of his career to date at 21:33 (finishing fourth among skaters).

We all know how the season ended for him and the team, but one thing I forgot to mention is that his final stat line in the 2021 playoffs was a mere five points. For a team that has been built to lean primarily on the backs of their four core players, you would expect the Leafs’ MVP to put up a much better showing than just five points in seven games played. It looks worse for him when you consider that he was scoreless in four of the games and 60% of his points came in Game 2, the only contest in the series where the Leafs’ offence showed their might.

In the end, Matthews’ 2021 campaign will be defined by a dominant performance in the regular season being completely overshadowed by a putrid showing in the postseason.

What to expect

We don’t have to worry about Matthews’ play during the 2021-22 regular season because he has not shown any signs of a major regression to this point. As long as he can remain healthy, it is not out of the question for him to push his point totals to even greater heights than in seasons past. Perhaps this could be the year where Matthews flirts with the century mark in scoring and further solidifies his case of being one of the best players in the game of hockey right now.

There remains little doubt that Matthews will begin the new campaign with Marner on his wing, but who his other winger will be has yet to be determined. The early showings of the preseason suggest it could end up being Nick Ritchie, who has done well in limited action alongside Marner. If Ritchie struggles during the regular season, some other possibilities include Ondrej Kase, Ilya Mikheyev, and Michael Bunting. Should the Leafs decide to embrace chaos and overstack the top line, there is always the option to bump up William Nylander in an attempt to overwhelm the opposition with the team’s three stars.

We also know that he was one of the first three players selected to represent Team USA at the forthcoming Winter Games in Beijing, so this could be a chance for him to prove his worth on the sport’s biggest stage. It could also be the first time in his professional career that he dons the ‘C’ and will likely find himself amongst the scoring leaders at the Olympic tournament. Like Sidney Crosby in 2010 and T.J. Oshie in 2014, Matthews has an opportunity to cement himself in hockey lore and perhaps become an international superstar should he put on a masterful performance in China.

Of course, none of these compare to the scrutiny he will be under once the playoffs roll around. The pressure on this Leafs team has never been higher and there is a looming sense that big changes could be coming should they yet again fail to advance past the first round. If he wants to ensure that the core can stay together for a bit longer, Matthews will need to play some of the best hockey of his life against whichever team the Leafs end up facing to begin the postseason. We all know that he can up the ante when the stakes are at their highest (look no further than his five goals in the 2019 playoffs), but the direction that this team goes in beyond 2022 rests primarily on his performance next spring.

Matthews’ goal song

His off-ice friendship with Justin Bieber has been well documented to this point so it only makes sense that Matthews’ goal song would be something from the megastar. I don’t have to overthink this one because Matthews himself said he would choose “Baby” as his goal song, so I will go with that as my pick. You may think it is an odd choice, but it could be effective in getting into the opponent’s heads since 105 of his career 199 tallies occurred at Scotiabank Arena.

All stats unless otherwise noted are from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.

The chart used is from Evolving Hockey.