Since right around quarter past eight on the evening of April 30, 2016, the top spot on the T25U25 has been a foregone conclusion. As Auston Matthews comes in at #1 for the fifth straight time, I’d understand if you felt this was a bit of an anticlimax. Yes, sure, he’s very good, he’s here again, etc.
But Auston Matthews had a really interesting season. If you ask me, it was his best. As a matter of fact: I think this season Auston Matthews established himself as one of the very best players on the planet.
The Player History
You probably all know Matthews’ history back to front by this point, so I will keep this intro short. The Leafs drafted Matthews first overall in 2016, he had one of the best rookie seasons in the salary cap era, he won the Calder Trophy, he dealt with injuries over the next couple of seasons that seemed to impair brilliant goal-scoring years, he signed an enormous contract. He wore funny outfits where he looked like an anime villain.
He acted like a jackass in Arizona last summer by drunkenly harassing a woman in her car. He disappointed a lot of people who like and root for him. I would be remiss not to mention this, and it’s difficult to contextualize properly in an article about him as an athlete, so I will leave the topic by saying I hope he’s learned from it and grown.
Focusing on hockey: what defined Matthews’ for the first three seasons of his career was his unbelievable goal-scoring. Matthews has been the best even strength scorer in the NHL since he entered the league and it’s not especially close. There are three things that go into goal scoring: how much you shoot the puck, how close you are to the net when you shoot it, and how good you are at putting your shot past the goalie. What made Matthews such an incredible player was that he was excellent at all three things together. Anyone who saw him change the angle on his dynamite snapshot to freeze Carey Price, or score one of his stickhandling-in-a-phone-booth goals point blank, would agree that the numbers tell the truth on this.
Matthews was not, it has to be said, ever a great defensive forward. In the titanic showdowns with Boston, then-coach Mike Babcock preferred to give the tough matchups to Nazem Kadri or John Tavares, more experienced two-way centres. The Leafs as a whole weren’t, and aren’t, ever going to be mistaken for the Jacques Lemaire Devils, and Matthews typified that style. He was going to lead his team to firewagon hockey, and so be it. The original scouting report on him as a prospect, which suggested remarkable defensive prowess, seemed mostly to be based on him being big and strong for his age. Leaf fans were nothing but pleased with him on the ice, but he was a bit of a one-way player.
Votes – Auston Matthews
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The Leafs had a tumultuous year (in a sports sense, before a pandemic cracked the world like an egg.) A flailing start led to the dismissal of Babcock, who was replaced by AHL boss Sheldon Keefe; Keefe’s Leafs surged for a couple of months before sliding back under the weight of multiple defense injuries and iffy goaltending. Unquestionably the change to Sheldon Keefe had a major impact, and it can be hard to balance how much weight we want to put on the early part of the year, where the team increasingly looked as if it wanted to die. I’ve mostly focused on the Sheldon Keefe era, which began November 20, 2019, at the risk of reducing our sample a little bit.
The first interesting thing: Matthews got inferior chances, but he scored more. This was exacerbated by the early struggles, but even under Keefe, Matthews had a lower expected goal rate than he did the prior year by about 9%. Matthews was playing more minutes under Keefe anyway at EV, so we’d expect more goals in bulk; what the numbers show was he scored more per minute. His actual shot rate was actually up slightly, it’s just that he was shooting from farther out.
From watching the Leafs, we can immediately point out one reason for that: Matthews added a huge one-timer this season. It seems kind of incredible that a goal-scorer of his calibre would add another weapon, but he did, and it was a great one. Matthews added a new way of scoring from distance. The main NHL site shows a huge increase in his slapshots this season; he actually took nearly 50% more slapshots this season than in his entire NHL career beforehand. And the puck kept going in. Not many players can credibly outshoot their chances to the extent Matthews does, but I think the clear evidence of his shot, on paper and on the ice, is that he can sustain it.
The power play, also, became more or less the Auston Matthews show. The top power play unit played more of each man advantage. The system began running through Matthews to an extreme degree, relying on his exceptional one-timer. In the Keefe era, the Leafs consistently outscored their expected goals at 5v4, and Matthews’ finishing ability is a big reason why. I’d encourage you to read this thorough breakdown of the Leafs’ power play this year if you want to learn more about it. For our look at Matthews, though: he was up to the task.
The pandemic deprived Matthews of what could have been a great three-way showdown for the Rocket Richard and his first 50-goal season. He’ll have to settle for being one goal back of David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin, this time. Still, with the offensive weaponry he’s added, where he can now basically score any way you can think of, it would be a surprise if he didn’t win a goals trophy. And soon.
Maybe more remarkably, though: his defence started to look up.
Sheldon Keefe famously likes to have his third forward, usually the centre, play high in the offensive zone. Often this puts them near the middle of the blue line. This empowers the attacking defencemen to jump into the play if they see an opening; it also gives them more passing options to keep the cycle going. The plus side of this is more sustained offensive possessions. The drawback is that you need your forwards to do their job defensively, and it takes them further away from the net they’re trying to put the puck into.
The concern about this, at least for me, was that it took an elite point blank goal-scorer like #34 away from where he earns most of his money. As discussed above, Matthews addressed those concerns by adding a slapshot to his arsenal and continuing to score at a superstar rate. This makes it even better that it seems like he really did benefit defensively.
The whole team seemed to improve defensively under Sheldon Keefe, as much as anything because they seemed to be able to stay in the offensive zone longer. The best defence is a sustained offence, after all. But while the Leafs all saw improvements, Matthews showed significantly better defence than he ever has before. By Micah McCurdy’s model, he’d never been so much as an average defensive player. This year, he was well above that:
The slight decline on offence is more than overbalanced by the defensive impact: Micah’s model has this as the best season of Matthews’ career. And you know what? I agree.
The eye test only goes so far with defence, and you should take mine with all the salt in the shaker, but: Matthews seems to get there more. Earlier in his career, Auston would seem to be a second late or a step short in closing out on defence, getting in lanes, and so on. He always blocked a considerable number of shots, and he was always a high-end takeaway player, but he never seemed to disrupt plays with the effectiveness his size and skill warranted. This year I saw more success, and you may say I saw what I hoped to see, but I’d have to tell you the Leafs have rarely shown me what I hoped for in my life.
Plenty of exceptional offensive players are straight-up bad defensively. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, for example, allow a flood of chances against whenever they’re on the ice, and basically try to outscore their problems. That’s fine—they’re exceptional offensive players, and you’ll certainly take their flaws to get their benefits. For the first three years of his career, the stats said we were taking that deal with Matthews, and we were fine with it. This year, the evidence is that we don’t even have to compromise anymore.
If the 47 games of the Sheldon Keefe era are what we can expect from Matthews going forward, we’re looking at a player who can be very good defensively while credibly contending for the title of best goal-scorer in the world. You do not tend to get those things together. Sidney Crosby has done both at different times, and, well, Crosby is one of the best five players in the history of the sport.
Matthews is not on Crosby’s level. But the level below that—the tier of players who define an era—looks closer than ever for a player who has still yet to turn 23. If you gave me a Hart Trophy ballot for this season, I would have Matthews in the top five, and he would be the youngest player there. That’s what we hoped for when we won the draft lottery in 2016, after years where we never seemed to win a damn thing.
This year was a gong show for the Leafs and a calamity for the world, and as ever in hockey its legacy looks to be decided by a chaotic playoffs. If the Leafs get knocked out by Columbus or in the playoff round afterwards, not much ink will be spilled over how great Auston Matthews is. That’s the nature of a team sport with a lot of luck involved. But I think somewhere in this complete mess of a season, Matthews put himself in a conversation with the brightest stars in the game.
Only one, from our managing editor, but it’s all you need, really.
Katya: Matthews is 38% of the way to Mats Sundin’s goals record for a Maple Leaf. He’s in 27th place on the all-time list and he’s going to be T25 eligible for two more years, and by then he could be top 10. All time. Maple Leafs.
He is the team. He is the blue maple leaf. He is now, and for the rest of his hockey career, the centre of the centre of the universe.
47 goals, y’all. Just take seven minutes and watch the whole damn thing.