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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Playoff success is the final barrier to Auston Matthews becoming the greatest Leaf ever

On Thursday night, Auston Matthews made history by setting the new record for most goals in a season by a Leaf. It broke a 40-year-old record that was previously set by Rick Vaive in 1982 with 54 goals.

He could have just called it a day with that historic goal, but Matthews decided to one-up the ante:

The overtime winner also set the NHL record for most goals in a season from an American-born player, while also registering a career-high 12 shots on goal (three shots shy of tying the record in the salary cap era set by Alex Ovechkin twice). And with 49 goals in his last 49 games, he has a chance to reach the elusive 50 in 50 mark tonight when the Leafs host the Canadiens on HNIC.

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This historic performance has become a common trend for Matthews, who is putting together a convincing case for becoming the greatest Leaf of all time.

Matthews leads the NHL in goals 255 goals in just 400 games played since his memorable debut, which is seven higher than Ovechkin. That is a rate of 0.64 goals per game or a 52 goal pace throughout an 82 game season. He has also shown his growth as a two-way force as improved his defensive game tremendously over the past two years and has accounted for 59% of the team’s goals when he is on the ice this season.

At 24-years-old, he is already ninth in team history for goals (five behind Wendel Clark) and 16th for points (four behind Doug Gilmour and just one ahead of Mitch Marner). So long as he remains with the team for at least a decade and doesn’t decide to sign with the Coyotes, Matthews is well on his way to reaching the top ten in both of those categories.

Matthews’ impact has also extended into popular culture. He got a rap song named after him in light of his historic entrance to the NHL, has graced the cover of GQ, appeared twice on the EA Sports NHL cover, and has done numerous sponsorships that include being the first NHL player to sign with a betting company. All of this has made him one of the highest-paid players in the league (and not just because he is one of six players with an AAV over $11 million).

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Over the last few years, we have seen him start to get nominated and win some major awards since taking the Calder Trophy after his rookie campaign.

Matthews was one goal short of winning his first Rocket Richard Trophy in 2019-20 due to the season being cut short by COVID-19. He would go on to emphatically take home the award in the pandemic shortened year with 41 goals and finished eight goals clear of second-place Connor McDavid and is on track to win his second consecutive this season. In addition, he has made five consecutive All-Star appearances, was named to the Second All-Star Team in 2021 and has been a finalist for both the Hart Trophy and Lady Byng Trophy.

That last award is given to a player who has shown the best sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct while playing at an elite level. Despite only having 70 career penalty minutes (a rate of just 0:10 PIM/GP), there will be two aspects to his career that will likely prevent him from ever winning the award.

The disorderly conduct charge for harassing a female security guard in the summer of 2019 will forever leave a permanent stain on his hockey image not just because of his actions, but also for his decision to hide it from the team until it became public knowledge in late September. It didn’t help that this was during the offseason the team was set to name a new captain for which he was a top candidate alongside the eventual winner, John Tavares. Although Matthews eventually reached a settlement with the security guard for an undisclosed amount, much of the hockey community continues to hold him accountable for his actions and inactions.

Then there is the two-game suspension he got from cross-checking Rasmus Dahlin in the throat towards the end of the 2022 Heritage Classic. Because he has now received supplemental discipline from the Department of Players Safety, he likely will not be getting any more first-place votes for the foreseeable future. Meaning his second-place finish for the award in 2020 will likely be the closest he ever comes to winning the award for a long time.

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Auston Matthews is far from perfect off the ice, but his on-ice performance is nearly flawless due to his impact on the team since being drafted first overall in 2016. When the Leafs won the aformentioned draft lottery, the course of the franchise changed forever. Many knew that the Leafs were getting a marquee player upon his selection, but few could have predicted that Matthews would not only match those expectations, but surpass them and then some.

He has built quite a convincing case to be regarded as the greatest Leaf in franchise history. Matthews’ on-ice success, accolades, and the overall impact is proof of just how fortunate the Leafs have him on their side instead of having to face him.

There is just one final obstacle that he needs to overcome to cement that distinction and its one that has haunted the franchise for decades: playoff success.

I hate to bury the lead, but it would remiss if we did not mention the harsh truth that the Leafs have yet to advance past the first round in the six seasons since he joined the organization. Five of those runs ended in the deciding game, with the lone exception being 2017 when the Leafs got eliminated in six games by the Capitals. Matthews has also been inconsistent in the postseason, going from being the team leader in goals and points during one appearance and then getting shut down by the likes of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Phillip Danault the next.

The success during the regular season will no doubt play a major role in assessing Matthews’ legacy, but the lack of a deep run in the spring will hold a lot of weight should he never come close to hoisting the Stanley Cup in the Blue and White. There is a reason why guys like Gilmour, Clark, and Mats Sundin remain highly regarded by Leafs fans: they all had success in both the regular season and post-season despite never tasting glory.

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Heading into the 2022 Playoffs, the Leafs face an uncertain future for the direction of the organization that hangs on how the team does this spring. They have the pieces and play style that will give them a chance to make a run but will need to overcome themselves and their demons before doing so. Should the first round begin today, Toronto would host Game 1 against the Bruins, a team that has accounted for two of the playoff heartbreaks since the Matthews era began.

If this becomes the year that the Leafs finally get over the elusive hump and reach the second round for the first time in nearly 20 years, it will be in large part because of the dominant play from Matthews when the games matter most. If it doesn’t, then more questions will be raised and doubt that he can ever carry his team to new heights. It’s that simple, really.

Matthews has done just about everything that was asked of him since becoming a Leaf six years ago. He has propelled himself into the upper echelon of the NHL superstar spectrum and has led to legitimate debates over whether he or McDavid is the best player in the league. Not only has he been a force on the ice, but has rewritten the record books numerous times over because of his God-given abilities.

Establishing the new mark for goals in a season by a Leaf player has gotten Matthews one step closer to becoming the greatest player in franchise history. A deep run in the playoffs is all that remains from making him the undisputed top dog.

Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.

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Salary information from PuckPedia.com.

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