Matthews lifting Maple Leafs once more
Auston Matthews is on fire.
After a relatively slow start, Toronto’s superstar forward has taken control of the NHL goal-scoring lead – he’s currently sitting with 25 goals in 28 games, two goals ahead of Vancouver’s Brock Boeser.
His latest scoring tear has been a huge lift for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a whole. After their 4-3 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins on Dec. 2, Sheldon Keefe’s team had just five regulation wins and a negative goal differential on the season.
Since that point, the Maple Leafs’ offence – Matthews in particular – has elevated its game. The Leafs have managed to score a staggering 32 goals in the past seven games, picking up 10 points in the process. If not for a couple of goaltending blowups, they surely would have banked more points.
We have seen Toronto’s offence, led by Matthews and company, ignite for lengthy stretches in the past. But for Matthews in particular, this scoring surge is an outlier. That’s saying something for a player who has established himself as one of the best goal scorers in the world.
If we look at Matthews’ scoring since entering the league, you can see how this is uncharted territory. He’s not only scoring goals at the highest clip of his career, but expected goal rates have also moved up considerably.
Matthews is the type of elite shooter who can persistently defy scoring expectations to the upside, converting on a whopping 16 per cent of shots over his entire career. If he and his line are creating even more scoring opportunities, that’s a scary proposition for opposition goaltenders:
Matthews has done plenty of damage in both game states this season. He has scored 18 goals at even strength, with another seven by way of the power play.
Those 18 even-strength goals are notable for a couple of reasons. First, the makeup of his line has changed this year – he is still playing most of his minutes with Mitch Marner, but the other wing has regularly featured 21-year-old rookie Matthew Knies, the de facto Michael Bunting replacement from last year.
As a group, they have been very successful at threatening from the most dangerous areas of the ice. When Matthews and company are out there, you see a very high volume of shots from the low slot and between the circles, two areas where scoring percentages tend to spike for most forwards, and Matthews has been no exception to that rule.
With the puck on his stick in these spots, Matthews has tortured opposing goaltenders over and over again. Consider his shot profile (via HockeyViz) over the course of the season at 5-on-5 to illustrate this exact point:
When Matthews is cooking like this, the Maple Leafs become a different animal. We have seen that materialize in a matter of weeks. Heading into Thursday’s action, Toronto is now eighth in the NHL in goal differential, and third best in the Eastern Conference.
Most importantly, they have started to put some daylight between themselves and chasing teams in the Atlantic, like the Florida Panthers (two games back) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (four games ahead and three points in the hole), perhaps setting us up for a two-team race against the Boston Bruins for the divisional crown.
The Maple Leafs broadly will be adjudicated on how they perform in the playoffs, considering their track record. But Matthews continues to prove he’s one of the best scorers on the planet, and it’s the single biggest reason why you cannot count this Maple Leafs team out.
We may not know the ceiling for this lineup, but we know the floor is extremely high, in large part because the American sniper anchoring their top line is as reliable a bet you can find for 50 (or more) goals every year.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey