It’s really hard to escape the name Auston Matthews so far this season, between the hot start of the Leafs, as well as his own hot start. Through 18 games this season, he has 18 goals and 29 points, which would put him on pace for 55 goals and 88 points this season (and 82 goals and 132 points in a full 82 game season).
But, the concept of a player scoring at a goal per game pace in the modern NHL just seems crazy. The NHL has only had a player play at least half of the season and score at a goal per game pace or higher seven times in it’s history, and not since 1993-94 when Cam Neely scored 50 goals in 49 games. The fact that Alex Ovechkin is considered the greatest goal scorer of all time and the closest he’s gotten to this is his 65 goal season in 2007-08 says a lot about how far-fetched it seems for Matthews to pull off.
However, Matthews is also a generational goal scorer like Ovechkin, so if anyone in the current era of hockey could pull it off, it’s him.
The easiest way to see if a player scoring a ton of goals can sustain it is by looking at their shooting percentage. Usually if a player is on the luckier side of the goal scoring, they’ll see their shooting percentage hover well above their career average, which is a better indicator of their shooting talent.
A perfect example of this would be Matthews’ hot start in the 2018-19 season, which saw him score 10 goals in his first six games. In this six games, he was shooting 50%, which is extremely unsustainable, even for Matthews, so naturally it would fall down a little bit, and he ended up with just 27 goals over the remaining 62 games, for a total of 37 that year.
So, with 18 goals in 18 games, you would assume that Matthews is on a similar shooting bender, but that’s not quite the case, at least not to the extent of 2018-19. So far, Matthews has been shooting 24% this season, which still a decent amount above his career shooting percentage of 16.3%.
The reason why it’s still pretty low considering he’s scoring at a goal per game pace is because of how good of a volume shooter he is. This season, he’s averaging 4.17 shots per game, which is better than his career 3.61 shots per game. He’s not just shooting for the sake of getting pucks on net either, he’s getting quality shots. So far, he has 1.37 individual expected goals per 60 minutes at all strengths, good for third in the league, and slightly above his career 1.35.
To put it all in perspective, if Matthews was scoring at his career average shooting percentage, he would have 12 goals in 18 games this season, which would still be good for 36 in the shortened season, and 54 in a full season. Not a goal per game pace, but still really good. So, it’s safe to say that Matthews is benefitting from a bit of luck to get these goal totals.
But, can he ride this kind of luck all season?
To be realistic, probably not. Since the 2005-06 NHL season, only three players have played 55 games (which is the most games Matthews can play at this point) and managed to maintain a 24% or higher shooting percentage, and none since Mathieu Perrault did it in 2011-12 to get a grand total of 16 goals on 60 shots.
However, this one potential unique factor from this season that could make this more realistic, and that is the fact that the Leafs are in the North division, and only playing teams in the North division. There’s been a bit of an inflated shooting percentage in this division (10.08% as opposed to the usual 9-9.5%), but also the limited competition provides the Leafs with fewer teams (and fewer goalies) to scout, making it easier for Matthews to figure out how to easily get goals. Plus, the Leafs are also a really good team in a mediocre division, so that could also lead to higher shooting percentages than normal, although I wouldn’t be relying on that too much.
So, will Auston finish the season with 50 goals? Sadly, probably not, unless he somehow manages to get even better at getting shots on goal and making sure those extra shots are quality shots as well, which is just too high of an expectation, even for Matthews. Otherwise, he’ll be banking too much on luck to get it, and even as far as luck goes, a few statistical anomalies would need to happen for him to pull it off.
But man, if he hasn’t made me believe he could somehow pull it off.