Auston Matthews was the best Maple Leaf this season and it wasn’t particularly close. He’s been a star since the first time he stepped onto NHL ice but he took his game to another level this season, clearly establishing himself as the engine of this Leafs team.
He was a consistent scoring threat right from opening night, racking up 5 goals in the first 3 games and going more than 3 games without a goal just once all year. Even on the rare occasions that the puck wasn’t finding the net, it always felt like it was simply a matter of time – and it usually was.
remember when auston matthews scored a goal so nice it made ray ferraro moan on live television pic.twitter.com/skKQVrps7w
— rahef 🌷✨ (@rahef_issa) April 29, 2020
Not only was Matthews leading the offensive charge all season but he was more engaged physically and in the defensive zone than we had seen in his first 3 campaigns, taking significant strides toward becoming a legitimate two-way star.
Simply put, Matthews was one of the most dominant players in the NHL this season and in his first year with the highest cap hit on the team, he was worth every penny.
By The Numbers
Matthews was having a franchise record breaking, career year before the NHL season came to a halt and frankly it’s a damn shame that we didn’t get to see him play a full 82 game season for the first time since his rookie year. With just 12 games remaining on the Leafs schedule, he was on pace for a franchise record 55 goals and a career high 39 assists for what would have been a 94 point season. With the season in the books, his 47 goals came up 1 short of Rocket Richard Trophy co-winners, David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin.
The decision to move Matthews to his off side on the power play was a topic of discussion all season but he was having a career year on the man advantage as well, notching 12 goals and 13 assists as the focal point of Toronto’s top unit:
Matthews drove play at a very high level this season, leading all Leafs with a 55.55 xGF%. That mark is a product of not only Matthews’ ability to generate offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates, but his ability to limit quality scoring chances for the opposition.
More often than not when Matthews was on the ice, the puck was in the opposing team’s end of the ice. He and his linemates generated quality scoring chances at an elite rate and Matthews was able to convert for a league leading 30 goals at 5v5.
According to Micah’s model, Matthews impacted the game defensively at a rate 6% better than league average over the course of the season. The heat map above shows that opposing teams generated very few shot attempts from in front of the Leafs net when Matthews was on the ice.
To put Matthews’ defensive impact into context, let’s compare him to a couple of hockey’s most heralded two-way centers, Sean Couturier and Patrice Bergeron:
Couturier and Bergeron both have similar defensive impacts and heat maps but they add more overall defensive value because they kill penalties and Matthews doesn’t. Beregeron, even more so than Matthews, does a fantastic job at limiting shot attempts from the high slot and directly in front of his own net but their defensive results were very similar this season.
For all of Matthews’ offensive accolades, a few other impressive numbers have flown under the radar. He finished the season tied with Mark Stone for 2nd in takeaways league wide – just behind Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin – and had a career year in the faceoff circle at 55%. Matthews was also tops among Leafs forwards and 12th among all NHL forwards with 60 blocked shots, 19 more than his next closest teammate.
Scoring goals has been, and will continue to be, Matthews’ calling card in the NHL but the numbers show that he was much more than that for the Leafs in 2019-2020.
What We’ve Seen So Far
Auston Matthews has been among the NHL’s most dangerous goal scorers since he entered the league, utilizing one of the hardest and most deceptive wrist shots in the game as his primary weapon to terrorize goaltenders. This season, however, saw him add a new tool to his goal scoring repertoire in the form of a blistering one timer.
An absolute 🚀 from Auston Matthews. 😳 pic.twitter.com/02yqYVpX96
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 9, 2020
Harnessing the one timer has added a new dimension to Matthews’ game, whether it be from a mostly stationary position on the power play or capitalizing on the rush off of a quick transitional play.
— NHL (@NHL) February 8, 2020
Whether he was beating goaltenders from distance or making opposing defenders look foolish on his way to the net with the puck, Matthews was making regular appearances across highlight reels all season long. Let’s take a look at one such goal from earlier this season against Buffalo:
This is just wizardry from Matthews. What a gorgeous goal.
3-0 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/IXvlVrtjRT
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) December 18, 2019
After a slick move to keep the play onside at the blue line, Nylander pulls up to find Matthews trailing the rush and he does the rest. This is just some incredibly skilled puck handling and edge work, especially for someone listed at 6’3″ and over 220 pounds. Opponents are forced to respect Matthews’ ability to shoot and score from anywhere and when they commit to taking away the shot, his hands are more than good enough to leave them in the dust on his way to finding twine.
He has been more aggressive using his body to win battles and separate opponents from the puck, too. He’s not likely to be running anyone through the boards but he doesn’t have to do that to make effective use of his size and strength. His pursuit angles, as well as his size and contact balance, allow him to get his body between his man and the puck and it helped lead to some more “ugly” goals like this one:
Pump this Matthews Shift into my veins pic.twitter.com/yF26vaajh4
— Ah yes, the Leafs. (@LeafsAllDayy) February 28, 2020
Though his offensive ability and shooting talent reached impressive new heights this season, perhaps the most encouraging development in Auston Matthews’ game came on the other side of the puck. His all-world puck skills and hockey sense began translating to his play in his own zone this season, making him a menace to deal with all over the ice. He’s still a young player and he wasn’t perfect every night, but seeing the most talented player on the team doing things like this on a consistent basis is encouraging:
Plays like these have become a regular part of Auston Matthews’ game this season. He’s becoming a real impact player in all three zones. pic.twitter.com/KOkq6ECwFd
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) February 10, 2020
Sometimes making a play in the defensive end boils down to effort and determination. This backcheck to erase a breakaway chance against Washington is one of my favourite Matthews plays of the season:
— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) October 30, 2019
Defense is played in all three zones and Matthews is a good example of that. His commitment to tracking the play and his ability to strip pucks from opposing players led to plenty of opportunities in transition. When players like Matthews and Marner get the puck with the opposition going the wrong way, good things tend to happen.
Love the backcheck by Auston Matthews to force a turnover and score on the ensuing rush.
He’s on pace for 56 goals now.pic.twitter.com/SncKAZiq5x
— Ian Tulloch📊 (@IanGraph) January 9, 2020
For a player who was already a legitimate star in the league, the overall improvement Matthews showed in his game this year removed all doubt that he’s among the best in the world.
How will he do against Columbus?
The Blue Jackets don’t have a single player on their roster that can match Auston Matthews but they are a well coached, structurally sound team that has frustrated opposing offenses all year. Columbus allowed the 5th fewest goals against at 5v5 this year, but scored only the 6th most so Matthews and his linemates will be able to take a few more risks to generate scoring chances than they might be able to against a more offensively skilled team.
Unlike the Leafs, Columbus’ goaltending was a strength of their team as rookie, and likely game 1 starter, Elvis Merzlikins put up a .923 save percentage in 33 games. Matthews and the rest of the Leafs will have to make good on whatever high quality chances they’re able to generate against a stout goaltender and one of the league’s better defensive groups led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
Matthews has gone up against opposing team’s top defensive units all season and has thrived against even the stiffest competition. Columbus will be a difficult matchup and a good test for the high flying Leafs, but Matthews has been downright unstoppable this year and I don’t expect it to be any different when the play-in round gets underway.
Matthews was the Leafs’ best player in their first round series against Boston last year, tallying 5 goals and an assist as Toronto fell to the Bruins in 7 games. Building off of the best season of his young career, as well as a lengthy layoff between games that has basically equated to a full offseason, he will be hungry to add to his playoff scoring totals as he tries to help the Leafs get over the postseason hump.
Matthews will surely be flanked by one of William Nylander or Mitch Marner but it remains to be seen who will be manning his other wing. Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev are the odds on favourites but guys like Nick Robertson, Alex Kerfoot, and Pierre Engvall could earn a look in the top six as well.
Regardless of who he plays with – or against, for that matter – there is little reason to believe Auston Matthews won’t continue to be the same dominant player he was all season.
(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com
Viz from hockeyviz.com)