With the NHL’s regular season winding down, all the talk is about the Stanley Cup playoffs and the league’s individual awards. While some are determined by overall numbers, other awards are a tad more subjective when it comes to their end-of-year winners.
Take the Hart Trophy, for example. There are a handful of names that are being brought up in hockey circles with a fair argument behind each one of these players. Auston Matthews. Johnny Gaudreau. Jonathan Huberdeau. Igor Shesterkin and Connor McDavid.
While all of them have played key roles in their team’s overall success this season, each one has stood out for their own individual successes. Shesterkin’s season is among the best all-time by a goaltender. Huberdeau now owns an NHL record for most assists by a left-winger, and while McDavid has played McDavid-like hockey, Matthews has been arguably the best goal scorer of the season.
Still, some would argue that Matthews’ feat isn’t as impressive as it might seem. Others, however, have decided to compare the star forward to others around the league – comparisons that remain surface judgements rather than in-depth breakdowns of the two players.
Enter Leon Draisaitl.
The Matthews-Draisaitl Comparison
The star status that hovers over Draisaitl in Edmonton is indisputable. Alongside McDavid, they reignited a fan base that hadn’t seen that kind of stardom since the 80s. What he’s done since entering the NHL in 2014-15 is undeniable.
He has 254 goals and 615 points in 557 career regular season games. At 26, Draisaitl is well on his way to being remembered for what he brought to the Oilers and to hockey in Germany. After all, he’s had two 50-goal seasons and has now hit the century mark in points in three of the last four seasons.
But when it comes to comparing Draisaitl to Matthews, more than just the surface numbers need to be looked at. Take power play points as an example. Over the past three seasons, Draisaitl has 44, 32 and 41 power play points — a testament to how successful the Oilers are with the man advantage and his contributions.
Over that span, that’s made up for 40, 38 and 38 percent of his season point totals during those seasons. Cumulatively, that’s 39 percent of his point totals over the past three seasons. Again, without taking away anything from how great Draisaitl has been over his career, some might argue that games are won a even-strength.
Remaining with the past three seasons, Draisaitl is third in 5v5 points with 149 points, behind only Matthews (155) and Connor McDavid (163). That said, Draisaitl has nearly 200 more minutes played at 5v5 than Matthews with McDavid having just over 100 more minutes played than the Maple Leafs’ star.
If you want to break those numbers down a little further, over the past three seasons, Draisaitl is averaging 2.68 5v5 points per 60 minutes, while Matthews is averaging 2.91 points per 60 minutes at 5v5. Even on the power play, Draisaitl has 117 power play points over the past three seasons, accumulated over just over 810 minutes of power play time. That’s 8.67 power play points per 60 minutes.
Now, compare that to Matthews’ 67 points in nearly 623 power play minutes. That’s an average 6.45 points per 60 minutes for a player that sees far less opportunity with the man advantage.
Reel it back to this season and the on-ice expectation favours Matthews as well. His expected goals-for percentage at 5v5 is 63.91 percent — third in the league amongst anyone with a minimum of 400 minutes of ice-time behind Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Meanwhile, Draisaitl’s 5v5 expected goals-for percentage sits at 50.51 percent this season, ranking him 272nd in the NHL.
Even if you expand those numbers to all strengths, Matthews is third in the NHL with a 67.01 expected goals-for percentage, while Draisaitl climbs to 41st in the NHL at 60.42 percent.
I won’t get into their respective teammates as each one plays with some talented linemates and an argument can be made either way, but when comparing these two particular stars it’s not a close race when it comes to designating the top goal scorer.
Hearing Whispers of Caufield
Now, some of this might simply be the battle between both sides’ fans — the Montreal Canadiens and Maple Leafs — on Twitter or elsewhere. It could be an attempt to get a rise out of the opposition’s fanbase and to this point it’s worked.
But, let’s not forget that in 2018-19, Cole Caufield did break Matthews’ single-season goal record with the U.S. National Team Development Program when he tallied 72 goals and added 28 assists.
He likely could’ve been a top-10 pick in 2019, but surely his five-foot-seven stature played a role in him dropping to 15th overall. However, it was a fortunate pick for the Canadiens, who’ve seen glimpse of brilliance from the kid, especially under new head coach Martin St. Louis.
But, how legitimate is the claim that Caufield could one day reach the goal-scoring abilities of his fellow countryman, Matthews? Well, let’s look at the numbers.
In his first two seasons, Matthews finished with 40 goals and 34 goals in 82 and 62 games, respectively. That’s an average of 0.51 goals per game over his first 144 regular season games. Over his career, he’s scored at a clip of 0.64 goals per game and is well on his way to 300 career goals just six seasons into his NHL career.
Now, Caufield has a much smaller sample size. He’s played just 65 regular season games, including just 10 in 2020-21. However, over that span he’s put up 24 goals for a career average of 0.32. Take into account the fact that he’s played on a much less talented rebuilding team and his stint under Dominique Ducharme was frustrating at best, and Caufield’s numbers are fairly good considering.
But consider this, under St. Louis coaching, Caufield’s goal-per-game rate is up to 0.54 with 19 goals in the 35 games. Now, it’s still off the pace of what Matthews has been able to do over his career and this season, but it might more more realistic in terms of his goal scoring ability than the comparison to Draisaitl.
Caufield’s expected goals-for percentage this season is at 52.29 at all strengths, but drops to 45.1 percent at 5v5.
There’s no question that at some point Caufield will join the ranks of Matthews, Patrick Kane and Jack Eichel as some of the game’s best American-born scorers in today’s game. But as for being at the top — the way that Matthews is right now — it’s safe to say that neither Draisaitl nor Caufield have come close to being the best goals scorers in the game.
All stats are from Natural Stat Trick.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.