Photo Credit: Scott Maxwell

Scott’s Thoughts: Auston Matthews is underrated

So Wednesday, the NHL’s Twitter account decided to hop on the recent trend of voting using retweets, likes, and comments to decide who was the better: Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, or Auston Matthews.

Naturally, Leafs fans had some fun with this, and jumped at an opportunity to make Oilers fans angry, resulting in more votes for Matthews than MacKinnon and McDavid combined (of course, there’s the fact that it’s easier for someone to like a tweet than retweet it onto their timeline or reply to it).

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Now, this obviously doesn’t mean that Matthews is officially better than McDavid, and I’m pretty sure if you asked any Leafs fan who they unironically think is better, they’ll say McDavid.

But, one thing I noticed during all this is that there are a lot of NHL fans that think he shouldn’t even be in this conversation, which is just flat out wrong. Matthews has proven to be an elite player in his first four years, and should probably be looked at as a top 10, maybe even top 5 player, especially once the older group of Crosby, Ovechkin, and Malkin are out of the league.

So, I’ll be looking at a few reasons as to why Auston Matthews is, in fact, underrated. Not the most underrated player, but underrated regardless.

He’s definitely not overrated

The one thing that will probably be said in response to this is that he isn’t underrated, and is actually overrated. And to put it quite simply, you are wrong.

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The problem with saying he’s overrated is that it is entirely based on anti-Toronto bias, where because Toronto is the center of the hockey universe and is talked about a lot, anybody outside this center gets really annoyed with how often they are talked about, and as such, get mad and just say that everything from Toronto is bad to counter it. That’s it. Any claim that it’s because we legitimately overrate Matthews and think he’s better than someone like McDavid doesn’t realize that we only say it to piss off Oilers fans, because even though they have the best player in the league and everyone knows it, they still have an inferiority complex with the Leafs.

Now, I can listen to an argument that he’s not underrated, he’s just rated. Like the case of anti-Toronto bias, there’s probably a case of Toronto bias behind my argument. However, my reasoning for him being underrated is simple: he’s one of the best players in the league, and he isn’t being looked at as such. It’s like how I used to say Crosby was underrated because people thought Toews was better.

He’s the best 5v5 goal scorer in the league

Ok, now it’s time for some actual hard evidence to back my claim. Since Matthews entered the league in 2016, he has scored 158 goals. Only Alex Ovechkin, the pinnacle of goal scorers, has more with 181. The reason for that difference? Power play goals. Ovechkin has 65 in that time frame while Matthews only has 37, mostly because he spent the first half of his career on the Leafs second power play unit. Once you look at purely even strength goals, Matthews has the most goals at 121, with Ovechkin’s 116 in second.

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That said, even if you look at it on a per game basis (due to Matthews injuries), Matthews pulls ahead even more, leading the league with a 0.429 5v5 goals per game rate, while Ovechkin trails behind at 0.371 (that is, with a minimum of 100 games played). He isn’t even second either, as McDavid has a 0.376 rate.

It gets better. Look at it at his goals per 60 rate, and he pulls ahead even more, as his 1.54 goals per 60, long ahead of Ovechkin’s 1.27 5v5 goals per 60.

Don’t get me wrong, Ovechkin is still the greatest goal scorer of all time (after all, we’re comparing a 19-22 year old Auston Matthews to a 31-34 year old Ovechkin). However, I think Matthews is becoming a better goal scorer than him at this current moment in time (and already is at even strength), much like how McDavid has surpassed Crosby these last few years.

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His injuries have hurt his case

Now, some of you may be thinking “if he’s the best goal scorer in the league, how come he hasn’t consistently been one of the goal leaders?” or something like that.

Well first off, he has, you just have to combine all four seasons for that.

Secondly, and more obviously, it’s injuries. You might not realize this, but his 40 goal rookie season (which by totals is his second best season) is actually his worst goal scoring season if you go by goals per game. The reason is because while he didn’t hit the elusive 40 goal mark in 2017-18 and 2018-19, he would have if he hadn’t only played 62 and 68 games in those respective seasons. If you adjust his totals to an 82 game season, he would’ve been tied for second in goals in 2017-18 with 44, and tied for fifth in 2018-19 with 44.

Even if you want to look at total points, he’s been above a point per game player in these last three seasons as well. If you adjust for an 82 game season with his point totals, he would’ve been tied for 19th in 2017-18 with 83 points, and tied for 16th in 2018-19 with 88 points. Not as elite as his goal totals, but consistently being top 20 is still elite production, and it was a lot more noticeable in a fully healthy 2019-20 season that saw him finish 9th in the league in total points, and 3rd in goals.

He’s younger than everyone else in the conversation

If you look at points per game over the last four seasons, Matthews currently sits 15th among all NHL players. Among the current era of young guns (players 27 or younger), these are the players that have a higher points per game than Matthews: Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak, Jack Eichel, and Mark Scheifele, players who are often thrown into the conversation ahead of Matthews for the casual fan.

An important thing to remember with these players is that only McDavid and Eichel are in the same age range as Matthews, and Matthews is the most recently drafted player of this bunch. All of these players (except for McDavid and Eichel) have seen the last four years as their prime years, while Matthews is just entering his prime.

A quick look at these aforementioned players first four seasons, and this definitely shows. It should be noted that this excludes any “rookie seasons” where the player played less than 30 games, so Scheifele doesn’t start until 2013-14.

The only player to consistently outperform Matthews in his first four seasons is McDavid, and the only other player to outperform Matthews in an individual season is Kucherov in their fourth seasons, and that’s by a difference of 0.41 points over the course of an 82 game season. Even Eichel, who’s at a similar point of his career as Matthews, is consistently below Matthews.

And if you want to talk about defense, well the problem is that pretty much all of these players have been bad at defense their whole careers. Using Evolving Hockey’s GAR model, only four players have had a defensive GAR above one in a season: McDavid, Matthews, Scheifele, and Kucherov (twice). Of those five seasons, only Scheifele’s 2014-15 season had a higher defensive impact than Matthews’ 2.2 defensive GAR from this season. Also, only one player has never had a single season with a positive defensive GAR: Leon Draisaitl.

If that’s too advanced for you, well, only Kucherov and Pastrnak from this group fair better in 5v5 shot attempts percentages over the last four years than Matthews 52.2%. He’s far from amazing defensively, but nobody in this group really is.

So, while it’s easy to say all of these players are better right now, Matthews is still in the same level of them right now, all while not having even hit his prime yet.

He’s even underrated on his own team

Again, I know what you’re thinking. “What do you mean he’s underrated on his own team, Leafs fans always overrate him!” And if you think that, you haven’t talked to enough Leafs fans.

Ever since the start of last year, the title of best player on the Leafs has been tossed around, partially due to the aforementioned injuries, and also due to career high seasons from Mitch Marner and John Tavares creating an argument for them.

The reality is is that there shouldn’t be much of an argument for either of those two over Matthews.

There might have been an argument for Tavares going into this season. Heck, even I said about a year ago that I thought Tavares was the Leafs best player, but that Matthews would probably surpass that in the next year or two, and he already has this year. Factor in that Tavares is 29 while Matthews is 22, and that argument is dead.

The only reason there can even be one for Marner is if you solely want to look at is raw point totals, as Marner’s 291 over the last four years beats Matthews 285. Once you factor in points per game, Matthews edges out 1.01 to 0.97. Factor in even strength, and it widens the gap a bit more to 0.73 to 0.65. Factor in ice time, and suddenly it’s even larger, as Matthews 2.52 5v5 points per 60 minutes jumps ahead of Marner’s 2.34. Heck, Marner isn’t even second any more as Tavares jumps ahead.

Marner over Matthews has never been a logical argument. The only reason it even exists is because Marner had a really good season stapled next to John Tavares (who has a history of elevating his linemates play), while Matthews had an ever-so-slightly worse season with an injury, while playing mostly with Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and the living corpse of Patrick Marleau. Besides, the only people making this argument anyways are Darren Ferris and Hockey Canada purist Leafs fans who have a live long dream of a Toronto-born Leafs fan being drafted by the Leafs and leading the team to the Cup.

So, to summarize all of this: when it comes to conversations about the best players in the league, Auston Matthews belongs in those conversations, and the fact that most people not only say he shouldn’t, but laugh at the idea, shows that he’s underrated. He’s not better than McDavid, and he never will be. But that’s the only player in this current era of young, elite talent that case can easily be made for. Every other player is either a few years older than Matthews, or Matthews is already better than them. And he’s still in the conversation with them!

This will probably continue too. He’s probably never going to win a lot of hardware, because people will always feel the need to discredit him for being talked about a lot by Leafs media. If Matthews played for his hometown team in Arizona, he’d be looked at the exact same as Aleksander Barkov is right now in Florida.

But, it doesn’t matter what other people think. He’s ours right now Leafs fans, and you better learn to appreciate it more than you have right now.