Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Keefe, Tavares & Matthews vs. Ovechkin

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the one-year anniversary of Sheldon Keefe as the head coach of the Maple Leafs. I’ll also take a look at a ranking of top centers currently playing on different NHL teams. And, I’ll review where John Tavares and Auston Matthews rank on that list.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Is Undergoing a Transformation

Finally, I’ll take an early but I believe justifiable look at how young Matthews compares favorably with one of the great NHL players of all time in the Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin.

Item One: Sheldon Keefe “Sort-of” Celebrates His First Full Year as Maple Leafs’ Head Coach

If Sheldon Keefe had wanted a smooth transition to NHL coaching, it didn’t happen. He’s now officially been the Maple Leafs’ head coach for more than a calendar year, but it might have been the craziest calendar year any new NHL coach (or even a veteran) has experienced. Obviously, this wasn’t the way it’s supposed to have turned out.

Sheldon Keefe
Sheldon Keefe (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Had he started his coaching any other time, Keefe would be well into a second season of juggling lines and creating combinations behind the Maple Leafs’ bench. Instead, his first full NHL season won’t start until the beginning of January – at least that’s the most current speculation for a starting date. And, there’s little chance 2020-21 will even be a full season.

Of his unique circumstance, Keefe noted: “You’re not thinking in the context (of one year) because it has been such a funny time with so many disruptions. It’s not your normal hockey cycle (because of the pandemic).” (From One year on the job under his belt, Leafs coach Keefe looks ahead with optimism,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 19/11/20).

As he reviews his first year as coach, Keefe added: “It has not felt like a year, and I certainly didn’t get to coach a year’s worth of hockey games. But at the same time, I’ve learned a great deal.”

How does he feel about where he is right now as an NHL head coach? Keefe’s answer suggests that he doesn’t lack in confidence. He noted that he trusts his own thinking and his experience more now than when he started a year ago. He also admitted that, although he’s relatively new as an NHL head coach, he’s had other head-coaching experience (more than 15 years-worth) and he’s repeated a number of NHL scenarios at other levels.

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However, nothing in his coaching history would have prepared him for the disruptions the pandemic has caused. He’s getting ready for training camp beginning in mid-December, or will it be the first of January or some other time?

But Keefe is far from alone awaiting that decision.

Item Two: Maple Leafs Place Two Players in Top-20 List of NHL Centers

Earlier this week, NHL Staff Writer David Satriano generated his list of the NHL’s top 20 centers. Two Maple Leafs players – Auston Matthews and John Tavares – made that list.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

According to Satriano, Matthews ranked fifth and Tavares ranked 14th. Satriano noted that, during 2019-20, Matthews set NHL career highs with 47 goals and 80 points in 70 games. It was the second straight season Matthews had increased his career highs. Another amazing number is that Matthews has scored at least 34 goals during each of his first four NHL seasons. Since 2016-17, only Alex Ovechkin (with 181 goals) has scored more than Matthews’ 158 goals.  

Of Matthews, NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson said, “Auston Matthews has proven to be one of the best 5-on-5 goal-scorers we have seen in years. He does everything you expect him to do exactly as you expect him to do it. … All he does is score, produce, and help Toronto win.”

As noted, Satriano ranked John Tavares as the 14th best center in the NHL. During 2018-19, his first Maple Leafs’ season, Tavares set career highs in goals (with 47), points (with 88), and plus-minus rating (with a plus-19). During the 2019-20 season, he added 26 goals.

Tavares is simply a consistent goal scorer. Since he entered the NHL with the New York Islanders in 2009-10, he’s had at least 24 goals each season. He’s also scored at least 60 points in nine of his 10 NHL seasons.

One thing that Tavares is not given enough credit for is his prowess in the face-off circle. Last season he won 55.3 percent of his face-offs, which was the sixth season in a row he’d won more than half of the face-offs he’s taken.

Related: Prospects News & Rumors: Marchenko, Berggren & Meireles

By the way, the Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid was named the best NHL center for the fourth straight season. The Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon was named second. The Oilers Leon Draisaitl was named third, and MacKinnon’s Nova Scotia buddy Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was named fourth.

Item Three: Auston Matthews vs. Alex Ovechkin: Who’s the Best Scorer?

In Item Two, I noted that, next to Ovechkin, Matthews had scored the most goals since the 2016-17 season. Interestingly, although both players are amazing scorers, Matthews is a different kind of a scorer than Ovechkin.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Specifically, Matthews scores a higher percentage of his goals 5-on-5 than Ovechkin. Matthews has averaged 77 per cent of his goals at even-strength, while Ovechkin averages 63 percent (446 of his 706 career goals) at even-strength. I know the math is obvious, but it’s worth pointing out: that’s a 14 per cent difference.

Hockey purists might suggest mentioning Matthews in the same breath as Ovechkin is a tad premature; however, and I might be biased, but it seems obvious to me that Matthews is really quite special and is getting better. Had the pandemic not hit, Matthews would have had one of the best seasons for any player in Maple Leafs’ history.

In a post written six months ago after the 2019-20 NHL season was suspended, Stephen Nixon of EditorInLeaf compared Ovechkin’s greatest goal-scoring season to Matthews’ 2019-20 season if it were adjusted into an 82-game season.

The seasons look like this:

Alex Ovechkin 2007-08 Season

65 goals (43 Even Strength and 22 Power-Play)

23:06 Average Time On-Ice

446 shots, 14.6 shooting percentage

Auston Matthews 2019-20 Season (adjusted to 82 games)

56 Goals (41 Even Strength and 15 Power-Play)

20:58 Average Time On-Ice

340 shots, 16.2 shooting percentage

A number of things are worth noting. First, Ovechkin plays more the two minutes more per game than Matthews. Matthews’ shooting percentage is higher than Ovechkin’s, but (obviously) Ovechkin shoots a much larger number of times.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Matthews’ projection of 41 even-strength goals are a ton of goals, a number Ovechkin has only reached one time during his 14-season career. Finally, Matthews would have bested Rick Vaive’s record of 54 goals during a single season, and would have taken over the spot as the highest single-season goal-scorer in Maple Leafs history.

It’s hard to say how the addition of new players like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and others might impact Matthews’ TOI during 2020-21. However, since Keefe became head coach, Matthews is averaging about three minutes more per game than when Mike Babcock was head coach. Should his TOI increase, who knows how many more goals Matthews might score?

The point is that Matthews not only had a great 2019-20 season but is having a great career. Perhaps it’s not too early to mention his name in the company of the great NHL players of all time.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

What a difference a year makes. Just over a year ago (actually in September 2019) the Newfoundland Growlers had completed their inaugural 2018-19 season and the Maple Leafs opened their 2019-20 training camp in St. John’s and played a pre-season game at Mile One Centre. The team met and had photos taken with Maple Leafs’ icon Howie Meeker.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Considering Future Trades?

Meeker passed a couple of weeks ago, and this week the ECHL Growlers’ season was canceled. The ending of the league’s season brings with it some sadness, but it was also undoubtedly a wise decision. It’s simply proved too risky working to keep everyone safe.

Figuring out where to play the organization’s different players is a practical problem, but protecting people from life-and-death issues like COVID-19 is an altogether different deal. I certainly look forward to an announcement about the upcoming 2020-21 NHL regular season, but I can’t stop believing that these decisions should never be made in any cavalier manner.