Postseason pressure continues to build on Matthews
To say the Toronto Maple Leafs are overjoyed with Auston Matthews’ recent extension would be an understatement. The annual cap hit – $13.2 million through the 2027-28 season – is significant. But so too is the production from arguably the league’s best skater not named Connor McDavid.
Any team in the league would have given Matthews the contract he agreed to, and some talent-shy organizations may have gone further than the Maple Leafs did. That’s the cost of doing business with a player who has outscored every other skater in the league since his rookie season back in 2016-17. His 299 goals are better than Alexander Ovechkin (297), the aforementioned McDavid (287), and Leon Draisaitl (285).
And while Matthews may be an elite goal scorer, the impact he has on his team’s broader performance is just as valuable. Consider the below plot, which shows how Toronto has performed by goal differential with and without Matthews on the ice over his career. It is a seismic difference, and what you would expect from one of the best players in the world:
It’s one thing to be 108 goals to the upside of how Toronto normally performs with Matthews on the ice. It’s another thing to consider that this isn’t unitized for usage, and that the majority of Toronto’s even-strength minutes are played without Matthews on the ice. To that end, the gap between the two is more extraordinary than you might conclude at first blush.
At any rate, this is a big reason why Toronto was prepared to commit in significant fashion to the 25-year-old centre. Matthews’ track record speaks for itself, but unfortunately, it’s also a double-edged sword.
Because for as much as one can argue that Matthews earned this massive contract (and there may be an argument owing to the league’s hard salary cap he is still underpaid relative to the totality of his production), the reality is this four-year extension will be measured on playoff wins and playoff losses.
No organization is under more pressure to deliver wins outside of the 82-game regular season schedule. Toronto’s failings in the postseason have been documented ad infinitum at this point, but I do think it’s a pertinent discussion to Matthews specifically.
One of the many reasons why Toronto has struggled to win in the playoffs is because the advantage play it generally gets from its best skaters just hasn’t been there. Whether it’s been muted offensive play, weaker defensive play, or capitulating goaltending at the wrong times, the Matthews unit just hasn’t been dominant when it matters most.
Consider the same career-trended goal differentials, but only focusing on postseason play:
If it looks unremarkable, it’s because it is. Over the course of Matthews’ career in Toronto, the Maple Leafs are just one goal better than their opponents with him on the ice in the playoffs. That’s still markedly better than the -11 differential the team sees without Matthews, but I think this is the best (and simplest) explanation as to why the Maple Leafs continue to run into walls when it matters most.
When their best player (and best units, by and large) are on the ice against tougher competition, the Leafs can compete, but usually towards break-even. When that group comes off, Toronto is a net-negative team.
Laying significant blame at the feet of Matthews for Toronto’s postseason undoing doesn’t feel appropriate, but it also seems too kind to be dismissive of it as an issue. And when you are soon to make $13.2 million per year in the seasons ahead, waiving away the lack of impact in the postseason just isn’t going to fly.
Toronto, and Matthews specifically, need to figure out how to take their regular-season dominance – and that’s precisely what it’s been, dominance – into April and beyond. With a new contract in tow, the pressure to do just that has increased considerably.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference