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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Auston Matthews’ Pursuit of Maple Leafs Immortality

It’s been a long time since a Leaf scored 50 goals. It’s been an even longer time since a Leaf won the Hart Trophy.

This year, Auston Matthews is damn near sure to accomplish the first feat and he could also find himself in the conversation for the other. At this point, we should be talking about where Matthews’ season ranks among the best in Leafs history.

You have to go back to 1993-94 to find the last time a Leaf scored 50 goals. That was when Dave Andreychuk buried 53. It’s happened four other times. Rick Vaive did it three times, once in 1981-82 when he scored 51, again the following year in 1982-83 when he scored 54, which is the franchise’s all-time single-season record, and once more in 1983-84 when he scored 52. Gary Leeman also scored 51 goals in 1989-90.

So, yeah. It’s been a while since a Leafs hit the 50-goal plateau. John Tavares came close last year when he scored 47 in his first season with the club after famously joining the team in free agency, but Matthews, who has 45 goals through 66 games and another month to play, should finally get it done.

The question for Matthews now isn’t whether he’ll hit the 50-goal mark. It’s whether he’ll pass Vaive for most goals in a season in Leafs history.

Matthews has 16 games left to work with and the Leafs need him to be at his best as the playoffs are far from a guarantee. As I said, Matthews has 45 goals in 66 games. That’s good for a 56-goal pace over the course of 82 games. 10 goals in his final 16 games, which the pretty much the exact pace he’s operated at all season, would be enough to get it done.

If Matthews does catch Vaive, his season will undoubtedly be talked about as one of the best in franchise history. As it should be. Breaking the franchise’s all-time single-season goal record in an era in which scoring goals is much more difficult than it was in the 80s and early 90s is incredibly impressive.

But could Matthews’ season be the best? It’s really difficult to say because we’re looking at performances across so many different eras. I mean, how do you compare Matthews’ 2019-20 season to what Busher Jackson or Charlie Conacher did in the 1930s? Or what Frank Mahovolich did in the 60s? Or what Darryl Sittler did in the 70s? Or even what Mats Sundin did in the dead-puck early 2000s?

It’s even difficult in baseball, a sport in which stats have been recorded since the 1860s, to compare players from era to era. But Hockey-Reference’s Point Shares tool endeavours to fulfill the same function as baseball’s WAR tool, attaching a value to players based on their contributions, adjusted by era.

Based on that tool, Matthews has been worth 10.4 point shares this season, which ranks seventh in Leafs history. Tavares’ debut season last year ranks fourth at 11.3, Dave Andreychuk aforementioned 53-goal season ranks third at 11.4, Babe Dye’s 1924-25 season in which he scored 46 points in 29 games for the St. Pats ranks second at 11.7, and Darryl Sittler’s 117-point 1977-78 season ranks first at 12.2.

At his current pace, Matthews would also end up passing Tavares, Andreychuk, Dye, and Sittler for the greatest season in Leafs history based on point shares. Obviously, the tool isn’t perfect, but, at the very least, it helps us stack players who played a century apart side by side, which is something that’s virtually impossible to do otherwise.

We’ve talked about the goals, but what about the hardware? Again, it’s been a long time since a Leaf won the Hart Trophy. A really, really long time. You have to go back well beyond their most recent 50-goal season to find their most recent Hart Trophy recipient all the way to Ted Kennedy in 1954-55. That was more of an acknowledgement of his career than an actual Most Valuable Player nod, as he finished more than 20 points behind Boom Boom Geoffrion and Maurice Richard for the scoring lead.

Though he has an uphill battle to actually take home the award, Matthews deserves to be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy this year. He’s easily been the Leafs’ MVP, a consistent, steadying presence in the middle of a season ripe with drama. Matthews has scored goal after goal after goal while his teammates have struggled through slumps and a wealth of injuries.

Without Matthews’ performance this season, things really could have ended up actually going south. Leon Draisaitl will likely end up taking the Hart Trophy home due to leading the league in points and dragging the Oilers through Connor McDavid’s injury, but, for the first time in a long time, there’ll be a Leaf in the thick of the discussion.

If I had to fill out a ballot right now, I would have Draisaitl number one, Artemi Panarin second, Matthews third, David Pastrnak fourth, and Connor Hellebuyck fifth. There’s still plenty of time, though, so a lot can change. Draisaitl won’t get that love if the Oilers slip out of the playoffs. If Matthews can jump over Pastrnak and win the Rocket Richard race and the Leafs run hot into the playoffs, his case suddenly becomes stronger.

We’ll see what happens over the next month. Matthews has arguably the greatest season by a Leaf all-time within his reach. It’ll be exciting to watch.