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Photo Credit: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

What We Learned: Auston Matthews is the best goal scorer in the league right now

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s year-(so far)-in-review series in which we talk about something we learned about each player on the team this year. Today, we have Auston Matthews establishing himself as the best goal scorer in the league. 

Among the many things we lost when the NHL season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic was an epic race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Alexander Ovechkin, who won the award in each of the past two seasons, sits tied with David Pastrnak for the league’s lead in goals with 48. Right behind them is Auston Matthews with 47 goals.

It’s difficult at this point to imagine that the 2019-20 regular season is going to be concluded (I’ll still hold out some hope for the playoffs), so Ovechkin and Pastrnak will more than likely be awarded co-winners of the Rocket Richard this year. That leaves Matthews without any hardware to show for his breakout season.

I mean, it’s sort of arbitrary in the grand scheme of things, but it would have been ideal for Ovechkin and Matthews to share that trophy. No disrespect to Pastrnak who’s obviously an excellent player, but Ovechkin vs. Matthews is the real debate for the league’s best goal scorer. Pastrnak scored 20 of his goals this season on the power play while Ovechkin and Matthews were well ahead of the rest of the pack with 35 even-strength goals each.

For those who have been paying attention, this isn’t really anything new. Since Matthews broke into the league, he’s scored more even-strength goals per 60 minutes than anybody else by quite a wide margin. Unfortunately for Matthews, that isn’t exactly the traditional argument you would use to say a guy is the best goal scorer around.

Most people aren’t interested in breaking statistics down to adjust for usage and power-play opportunities to figure out who’s scoring at the highest rate in an isolated scenario that levels the playing field. Most people just want to see who’s scored the most goals.

The thing holding Matthews back from being crowned as the league’s best scorer, right or wrong, has been his durability. After his 40-goal rookie season, Matthews missed major time in his second and third seasons and was nowhere near the top of the Rocket Richard Trophy race. His goal-per-game pace was elite, but you have to put together an entire season of scoring goals if you want to be known as the league’s best goal scorer.

But, this season, Matthews was healthy and he was scoring at the best pace of his career. Had the season finished as normal, Matthews surely would have reached the 50-goal plateau. He would have become the first Leaf to do so since Dave Andreychuk did so in 1993-94. He also probably would have broken Rick Vaive’s single-season Leafs scoring record of 54 goals set in 1981-82. He might have even won the Rocket Richard Trophy, cementing himself as the best goal scorer in the league right now.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the season got cut short and Matthews didn’t hit 50 goals, he didn’t break Vaive’s record, and he didn’t win the Rocket Richard Trophy. He doesn’t win the cold, hard, old-school argument of what makes the best goal scorer in the league, but, this season, Matthews proved that he is.

Under Mike Babcock, Matthews scored 14 goals in 23 games, which was good for a 50-goal pace. After Babcock was fired in November and Sheldon Keefe replaced him behind the bench, Matthews’ production started to rise. Not only did the team start to operate with a more open, offensive style, but he saw nearly two more minutes of average ice-time per game.

With Keefe behind the bench, Matthews scored 33 goals in 47 games, good for a 58-goal pace. Who else was on pace for 58 goals this season, you ask? Well, Alexander Ovechkin, of course.

What separates Matthews from Ovechkin, in my mind, is the versatility of his goal scoring. So much of Ovechkin’s production comes from the one-timer above the circle that he blasts past goaltenders over and over again.

To be clear, I’m not saying that’s some cheap and easy way to score goals. His unbelievable shot is one thing and his ability to read the defence and get open to get the shot away is another. But the different ways that Matthews can create offence from anywhere in the offensive zone is what gives him the edge as the better goal scorer right now.

There’s the Ovechkin-esque one-time blast that just finds holes through goalies…

There’s the pinpoint bullet of a wrist-shot he can pick the smallest openings with…

There’s the slick hands in close…

There’s the deflections, another weapon in close…

Beyond the shooting skill, Matthews’ most important weapon is his ability to read the play, predict where the puck is going and where he can go to get open…

Even if he’s covered adequately, Matthews can still just flat-out beat a defender…

The shot, the hands, the offensive instinct, the ability to rifle a bomb from the circle or wrist a snipe from in close or deflect a point-shot from an impossible angle, the diverse arsenal that Matthews boasts when it comes to scoring goals in second to none.

He won’t have any hardware to show for it, but he’s established himself as the best goal scorer around right now. Matthews’ Rocket Richard Trophy will come soon enough.