Under new head coach Sheldon Keefe, Auston Matthews’ production has exploded. In 22 games under Keefe, Matthews has 17 goals and 10 assists for 27 points. With the extra ice time, and now mostly playing alongside Mitch Marner, Matthews has never looked better.
Recently, I wrote about the Leafs’ “big four” contracts and how they have played this season compared to players who signed similar deals. I summarized that while Matthews has been undeniably amazing, it’s hard to consider his contract “good value” when his closest contract comparable is Connor McDavid (who signed for slightly more of the cap percentage, but for an extra three years). A few hours after publishing, Matthews made me eat my words, scoring two key goals against the Winnipeg Jets, including a game-tying goal with 12 seconds left that gifted the Leafs an extra point. While he’s expensive, Matthews may just be that good.
The biggest criticism of Matthews’ contract will always be the five-year length – releasing Matthews to free agency three years quicker than players who signed eight-year maximum deals – including Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Jack Eichel.
One of the few superstars who also elected to sign a five-year contract in the 2011 offseason was Steven Stamkos directly after his ELC. Following this new contract, Stamkos immediately went on to score 60 goals the following season. One way for Matthews to silence any doubt about whether he has earned his superstar level contract would be to follow in Stamkos’ footsteps.
Is 60 Goals a Possibility for Matthews?
While it may be jumping the gun to suggest Matthews, who has never scored more than 40 goals, could achieve 60 this year – it isn’t completely crazy. Even prior to the season, Matthews’ advanced stats have shown he’s capable of taking his scoring output to the next level.
If Matthews continues performing under his recent Sheldon Keefe scoring rate of 0.77 goals per game, and remains injury-free through the Leafs’ 37 remaining games, he would be on pace to score another 29 goals this season. Add that to the 31 goals he has already scored and the pieces fit together perfectly – a 60 goal storybook season.
Matthews has been shooting at an 18.3 shooting percentage (S%) so far this season. While this is abnormally high, Matthews may be one of the only players in the league who could sustain this level. Over his entire 2017-18 season, Matthews sustained an 18.2 S% across 62 games. His career shooting percentage sits at 16.0, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest he’s likely a better shooter now than he was in his rookie or sophomore seasons.
The precedent of holding crazy high shooting percentages has also been set before: Stamkos’ shooting percentage over three seasons beginning in 2011-12 was a blistering 19.5.
It’s possible that no regression is due and Matthews 18.3 S% may just reflect his true shooting ability. If so, the 60-goal mark is certainly within reach.
What would 60 Goals mean for Matthews?
While 50-goal seasons have long been the benchmark for a phenomenal goal scoring performance, the 60-goal benchmark is much more exclusive. It’s only been achieved twice in the last two-decades: once by Alexander Ovechkin in 2007-08, and once by Stamkos in 2011-12. Fittingly, these two were named the top two goalscorers of the decade.
While a 60-goal season would usually imply a Rocket Richard Trophy, this year could be an exception. Just when he seemed to be slowing down a bit, Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak scored a hat trick Thursday night to hit 35 goals in 45 games – a 64 goal pace over 82 seasons. The main difference between the two players comes on the power-play, where Pastrnak’s league-high 16 power-play goals this season doubles Matthews’ total of eight.
However, Pastrnak’s 19.7 S% is likely not sustainable. Over his career, Pastrnak’s shooting percentage is significantly lower, although still impressive, at 14.9%. Prior to this season, Pastrnak’s career-high S% was 16.2. To win the scoring race, Matthews will have to maintain his shooting percentage and shot attempts, while hoping Pastrnak regresses back to his career averages.
Regardless of whether a Rocket Richard Trophy accompanies the achievement or not, a 60-goal performance for Matthews would quickly solidify himself as one of hockey’s great scorers and silence any criticisms of his superstar contract.