What can reasonably be asked of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in the playoffs?

Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
18 days ago
Out of one side of my mouth I can’t praise the season that Auston Matthews is having enough. Not only is very likely going to finish with the greatest goal scoring season of the salary cap era and he has a legitimate shot at 70 goals, he’s also very much a Selke candidate, a Hart candidate, and indisputably one of the top three centres in hockey today.
Out of the other side of my mouth comes the message that was rampant before Auston spent the season dazzling hockey fans, Matthews has to be better in the playoffs.
Now there are a lot of factors that come into play in the post season. While teams are certainly taking steps to make sure they don’t have their fourth lines on the ice when Auston is playing, the line matching is about to get ramped up, and it is likely that Matthews will have a defensive pairing shadow as well as a capable centre shadowing him.
At the same time, Sheldon Keefe has looked to Matthews to match against the best players as well. He’s caught in the dual role of being the Leafs best offensive and best defensive centre and as a result he doesn’t get the same benefit of Toronto’s attempts to line match as someone like John Tavares will get. It’s a tough gig.
A lot of that is largely true for Mitch Marner, who in previous playoffs was stapled to side of Auston Matthews and this season the lineup is still to be determined but there is a little interest in spreading them out. Potentially this gives both of them a bit of breathing room.
Career wise, the Leafs stars aren’t alone in their playoff struggles. Very few players keep up their regular season pace in the post season and while it has been easy in past years to point to the McDavid/Draisaitl show as a playoff success story, they are an outlier amongst the NHL’s star forwards:
Of the 16 players I looked at in addition to the Leafs core four forwards, only six players have exceeded their regular season points per game in the playoffs over their careers, but of those six, four of them have recently picked up cup rings.
Of the Leafs Nylander and Tavares have been better at matching their regular season results, but again this could come from the benefit of being the second line and not being a line that the Leafs are using as a defensive matchup. There are also some important single season outliers to consider like Matthew Tkachuk being a 1.2 ppg player in the playoffs last season after being a 1.11 ppg player in the regular season, and while Kucherov’s career numbers see lower points per game in the playoffs than the regular season, his two cup rings came on the back of a 1.38 ppg run over those two post seasons and for the 2021 cup run that meant better numbers in the playoffs than the regular season.
Even Gretzky’s incredible 1.92 points per game over his career in the regular season drops to a 1.83 point per game average through his career in the post season. (I guess he just didn’t like pressure of the big games.)
While I’m sure when talking about expectations for Matthews and Marner it would be nice to say “be Draisaitl in the playoffs” and leave it there, the fact that defending is also expected of them complicates things. Although maybe it shouldn’t. The Leafs are an offence first team and rather than attempting to react to their opponent’s line, the Leafs can dictate who they want out there, to a certain degree.
The biggest issue with both Matthews and Marner in the 2022-23 playoffs is consistency. Matthews had 5 goals and 4 assists in the six games against Tampa, it’s hard to knock that and he had points in every game, and multiple points in four games. In contrast, he had just two assists in the Florida series and was held off the scoresheet in the final three games. Cue the outrage.
Marner was just as enigmatic. While Marner might primarily be a playmaker, a seven game goalless streak in the middle of the playoffs is unacceptable. And like Matthews he had points in just 2 of the 5 games against the Lightning, although his two point effort in Game 4 was the reason the Leafs weren’t swept. Marner had 2 goals and 8 assists in the first four games of the playoffs and had 1 goal and 3 assists in the remaining 7 games.
When it comes to the potential first round competition this season, Matthews has been a point per game player against both the Bruins and Panthers. Marner, not so much. The best case scenario for both of these players would be the Leafs somehow finding themselves playing in the Metropolitan division via a wild card spot and fortunate results in the race for the President’s Trophy, but in reality, the Leafs will face the Panthers and that is okay for Matthews and work needs to be done by Marner.
Matthews and Marner are also coming into this post seaosn with an attempt at help from Brad Treliving, as there is a real hope that Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi will bring more offence to the playoffs than Michael Bunting and Alex Kerfoot or at least they will be more likely to produce greasy playoff type offence. In balancing out the attack a bit more there is (in theory) more space for Matthews and Marner as well as less pressure on them to be the players to produce.
In contrast to that, the Leafs taking a step back defensively in their forward group with the absence of Ryan O’Reilly, Alex Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, etc. there might be an increased need for Matthews and Marner to take on tougher assignments. In some ways the Leafs have traded one problem for another, but that is how the salary cap era works. If the Leafs stars aren’t scoring but are keeping top competition from scoring, that’s still a win for the Leafs and with Domi, Bertuzzi, Nylander, and Tavares still there for the offence first push, Toronto needs to be comfortable with Matthews and Marner being lost to defence at 5v5.
While Matthews and Marner haven’t done much to deflect their playoff criticism it is largely Sheldon Keefe’s deployment of his stars that we are judging them on. And with the Leafs powerplay and penalty kill falling flat of late, another area where this duo is expected to shine requires some attention. Marner’s return to the lineup might be enough to get those areas back on track though.
As much as there has been a lot of praise for the Leafs depth, and the emergence of secondary scoring has created a lot of hope, the Leafs are still going to live and die by their stars in the playoffs and during the Matthews/Marner era, the stars have underachieved. While regular season numbers against tougher competition might be a big ask, it is necessary if the Leafs are ever going to take the next step in the playoffs.
Data from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference

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