Auston Matthews vs Alex Ovechkin through 535 games – it’s closer than you think

Photo credit:Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
Nobody has dominated headlines around the Toronto sports media circle this season quite like Auston Matthews. And can you blame anyone for it? He shocked the universe when he scored 60 goals in 2021-22, and now it looks like he’s not only going to score 60 again but blow past that mark for the first time in his career. He’s also only 27 years old. 
In Matthews’ draft, he was touted not as a generational prospect, but as someone who would fall in the tier below players like Connor McDavid. Any Leafs fan at the time would have been jacked at the idea of a prospect with potential anywhere close to McDavid, but looking back on that assessment seven years later, it feels like Matthews has outgrown his initial expectations. Not only has he established himself as one of if not the league’s primary scoring threat, but he brings defensive play up the middle good enough to earn him Selke nominations. 
Everyone knows that Matthews’ is a bonafide goal scorer. It’s long been his calling card, whether that was in the NHL, international tournaments, the Swiss league, or the U.S. National Team Program, and even if you never got an opportunity to watch him at any of these levels, it’s in the news pretty much every time the Leafs play. Still, just HOW good of a goal-scorer he is can be overlooked, and it’s worth a deep dive to see how he stacks up against the only comparable goal-scorer of this generation – Alexander Ovechkin. 
Until the days of McDavid vs Matthews, the debate was always Sidney Crosby vs Alex Ovechkin. Here were two of the top players in the league, exciting in their own ways, possessing entirely different skill sets. While McDavid and Matthews are closer to each other than Crosby and Ovechkin were, you’ve got two players whose calling cards are speed and playmaking and two whose calling cards are goal-scoring. So, for the purpose of this piece, we’re going to compare Matthews and Ovechkin. 
Before we dive any deeper, we’re going to share an infographic we came across on Reddit, showcasing the pace of these two players throughout the first 535 games of their respective careers. It’s worth noting that by the time of this article being written, Matthews has played 537 games – not 535, and has one more goal than he did when the infographic was created.  One goal doesn’t affect the pace whatsoever, so we’re going to judge this based on each player’s first 535 games. 
The first stat that jumps out at you is the flat amount of goals. If you told any Leafs fan on the day Matthews was drafted that he would have half as many goals as Ovechkin through his first seven-or-so seasons, they would have been psyched. If you told them Matthews would have the same amount of goals as Ovechkin, they would have cried tears of joy. If you told him that Matthews would have 23 MORE goals, they probably would have done all of the above and guessed that in the year 2024, the Leafs would have seven new Cups under Matthews. Okay, maybe that’s a little crazy. 
Looking at each of their season-by-season stats over the first seven years of their careers, Ovechkin has had higher highs and lower lows than Matthews, which likely helped the latter pull ahead in his pace. Between the two players, the longtime Capital had the best individual season in that span from a goals perspective, with a 65-goal, 112-point campaign in 2007-08. He also had the worst, managing only 32 goals (yes, ONLY 32 goals) in 2010-11. Matthews’ peak during the first seven seasons of his career was 60 (which he’s well on track to pass this season) and he only dipped as low as 34. 
What makes this pace more impressive from Matthews’ perspective is that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy the same way Ovechkin was at the start of his career. The latter played less than 78 games only once in the first seven years of his career, whereas Matthews has only played a full 82 games once in the first seven years of his which was in his rookie season. His next busiest season was last year, when he played 74. 
Another impressive element of Matthews’ pace throughout their first 535 games is the contrast between even-strength goals and power play goals. 259 of Matthews’ goals have come at even strength, making up 74% of his total goals to date, whereas 214 of Ovechkin’s goals through the first 535 games of his career came at even strength for 65%. The latter’s power play presence and self-proclaimed “office” at the top of the circle helps this stat check out, but still, considering the way the Leafs stack up their top power play unit, it’s a little surprising that Matthews’ power play goal count isn’t higher. 
Let’s go a little deeper – game-winning goals. They’re pretty much right on par with each other, with Matthews having an edge of five goals in that department. They have the exact same amount of overtime-winning goals with 11, and Ovechkin has four short-handed goals compared to Matthews’ 0, which is kind of hilarious. Ovi’s biggest flaw in his game has always been his defensive game, and Matthews has been taking regular shifts on the penalty kill all season, so it’s shocking that the latter doesn’t even have one. Perhaps the former’s short-handed goals could have come with the net empty at the end of the game, but still.
This leaves us with empty net goals, which is arguably the craziest element of this comparison. Matthews only has eight empty-net goals in his career, which is less than half of Ovechkin’s count at 19. Goal scorers always take heat when they pad their stats with empty-net goals, especially if it’s the third goal of a hat trick, and while Ovechkin shouldn’t be thought of any less of a goal scorer, the fact that only eight of Matthews’ 351 career goals (or 350 if you’re going by the graphic) came with the net empty is flat out insane. 
Just before we get the inevitable “now do the playoffs” comment, Matthews currently has 22 goals and 44 points in 50 playoff games. Ovechkin had 30 goals and 59 points through his first 51 playoff games. So, the latter is out-producing the former in that category. In that same breath, there was a time when the Capitals could never make it past the second round; it remained that way from Ovechkin’s first season all the way until the year they won the Cup when he was 32. If you think there’s a massive gap in playoff success between advancing past the first round and advancing past the second round, you’re free to think that. 
None of this is to say that Matthews is guaranteed to end up as the best goal-scorer of all time. His pace early in his career is incredibly impressive, and the fact that he’s even being compared to Ovechkin, let alone out-scoring him at this stage of their careers, is something Leafs fans should be counting their lucky stars for. That being said, the second half of Ovechkin’s career and the pace he’s been able to score at through his late 20s and 30s is why he gets the title of “best goal-scorer of the 2000s”. 
Matthews is going to have to stay healthy and continue his pace on a consistent basis if he wants to hold a candle to Ovechkin by the time both players’ careers are over. He’s on pace to do so right now, but he’s arguably not even halfway through his own career, so it’s going to be a tall task. Either way, next time the Leafs lose a game and Matthews doesn’t make an impact, maybe think twice before suggesting they trade him for a top defenceman. He’s not just a goal scorer – he’s one of the greatest players of the current generation, and all too often, fans don’t appreciate it the way they should.

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