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Where Matthews fits in an epic Hart Trophy race


It’s hard to remember a National Hockey League season, at least in recent history, that featured a more fascinating Hart Trophy race than the one we’re watching this year.

There are no fewer than five players – Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (yes, a goalie) – who are deserving of first-place votes. And that’s before we get into the late surge by the venerable Sidney Crosby.

If I voted today, I’d go with MacKinnon. The individual performance of the Avalanche superstar has been extraordinary, his line has blown everyone off the ice all season long, and he’s unquestionably one of the most talented players in the world. That said, the daylight between him and McDavid, at least for me, is razor thin.

The other two forwards are also compelling. Kucherov’s line has not dominated teams the same way MacKinnon’s or McDavid’s have, but he is bidding for a 100-assist season and pulled Tampa Bay across the playoff threshold — on some nights, seemingly, by himself.

The same can be said for Matthews in Toronto. While Kucherov has been an all-time playmaker this season, the American sniper has established himself as the league’s best goal-scorer. Frankly we haven’t seen a pure shooter of Matthews’ skill since prime Steven Stamkos or Ilya Kovalchuk; his bid for a 70-goal season would place him in rarified air, if he isn’t already there:

Matthews’ 2023-24 season would be just the 15th to eclipse the 70-goal threshold, and it goes without saying the company he is keeping here is second to none. Every single attacker except for Alexander Mogilny (take note, voters) is in the Hall of Fame, and it’s worth acknowledging this list is quite repetitive – you will see an awful lot of Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, and Mario Lemieux, who are three of the best hockey players ever.

And this is without any era adjustments. If you were to baseline scoring rates for every season, Matthews’ numbers would be considerably more impressive. Recall that league scoring in the 1980s saw an average team scoring about 3.8 goals per game, or about 20 per cent higher than current rate-scoring.

Matthews has benefited from the league realizing an upwards move in scoring over the past few seasons, but that’s just on a relative basis. We are still a ways off that 1980s pace, where nine of our 14 70-plus goal seasons – at least for now – were realized:

When it comes to player analysis that spans different playing generations (and different playing environments, and different rules, and different officiating standards, and on and on…), I do prefer to measure players in relation to their contemporaries. That’s where I think Matthews’ argument for the Hart Trophy is legitimized, even if the totality of his performance pales to the likes of MacKinnon.

The below shows a distribution of goal scoring leaders by season, with the exception of the 2012-13 (lockout-shortened) and 2020-2021 (pandemic-shortened) seasons:

The lead Matthews has on other stars this season – including Sam Reinhart (14 goals back), Zach Hyman (16 goals back), the aforementioned MacKinnon (18 goals back), and Artemi Panarin (21-goals back) – is staggering.

The only other season in the statistical modern era that looks similar was way back in 2007-08. That’s when Alexander Ovechkin put together a masterclass 65-goal season under the eye of Bruce Boudreau, engineering a lethal power play in a league environment where scoring was generally non-existent. Only two other players were able to cross the 50-goal threshold that season: Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk.

If nothing else, appreciate just how decisive this Rocket Richard Trophy race has been. Front offices around the league are always looking for competing skill and attributes to fill out their lineup, but finding a unicorn-like scorer the ilk of Matthews is a luxury of the highest order, and what every general manager covets.

As for the Hart, the competition is much stiffer. But I remind you as we watch Ovechkin chase Gretzky for the all-time goal scoring lead, keep an eye on Matthews. He’s already out-producing Ovechkin at this point of his career; if by some miracle he can match the longevity Ovechkin has been known for, we might see another all-time goal scoring record erased in the not-so-distant future.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey