What else is there to say about Toronto Maple Leafs star centre Auston Matthews?
He continues to be an offensive dynamo and just when we think we’ve seen him at his best, he continues to go further and surprise us all. His play in the 2021-22 season justifies that. Matthews is definitely making his case for some hardware this season as he’s back in the Rocket Richard race and making a case for the Hart and Selke Trophies.
Gaining Support for the Hart
The Hart award is given to the player that is deemed the most valuable player in the league. Considering what Matthews has been able to accomplish this season, he deserves to be in the conversation as he’s one of the most noticeable and valuable players every time he steps on the ice. He’s clearly gaining traction as the Hart race heats up.
Related: Maple Leafs Daily Download
Matthews has already got a vote of confidence from a very well-respected veteran in Jason Spezza. Spezza alludes to his ability to be a factor in every game this season as well as his work ethic. He knows what he’s talking about. If you were watching Matthews this season, you get a sense that he was on a mission to be dominant and we’re seeing that now.
Matthews finished second in Hart trophy voting last season, losing to Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid who had 105 points in 56 games. Points shouldn’t be an indicator for the award, that’s what the Art Ross is for. However, in this case, this was a historic moment and McDavid deserved it.
Matthews had a slow start to the season missing the first three games and only had two points in his first six. Now, he has clawed his way back into the scoring race, all while getting his team the much-needed victories in the process. While the Maple Leafs had struggled to start the season, they are now two points back of first in the Atlantic Division as they closed the gap on the Tampa Bay Lightning (first) and Florida Panthers (second). They have Matthews to thank for that as he’s once again been a major difference maker.
Matthews is having more of an impact on his team’s overall success. Compare that to the Oilers, they’re currently in a fight for a playoff spot, outside of the second wild card spot with the top-two scorers in the league. As good as McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are as dominant players, no matter how well they play this season, it shouldn’t guarantee them the award over the impact that Matthews is currently having.
Timely defensive plays and scoring at will. You can’t deny that what Matthews is doing is definitely worthy of winning the Hart.
Goal Scoring Dominance Continues
It’s no secret that Matthews has been a dominant goal scorer since entering the league in 2016-17, a four-goal debut.
In that span, he has scored 236 goals, one behind Alex Ovechkin for the lead and taking over the lead in goals per game with 0.61. He has the most even strength goals (177) and is eighth in power plays goals (59).
In his last 103 games, he has scored more goals than any other player in the league with 78, a 0.76 G/GP. That’s 10 more than Draisaitl.
At the end of November, Matthews only had 10 goals and was 48th in points with 19. Draisaitl and Ovechkin were one, two in the league in goals with 20 and 19 respectively. Fast forward to today, Matthews has caught up to Draisaitl to be at the top of the goal scoring charts, scoring 27 since then and having 37 total. His 25 goals at even strength leads the league and his nine multi-goal games are only second to Draisaitl (12). To close the gap in the goal scoring race is really difficult. Matthews made it seem like a piece of cake surpassing Ovechkin and another scoring threat in Chris Kreider in the process.
Over the last three seasons, Matthews missed out on the Rocket by one goal in 2019-20, won it last season with 41 (on-pace for 63) and is definitely poised to win another as he’s on-pace for 56 this season. He is truly in a category of his own as he’s now the poster boy for goal scoring. He’s easily the best Maple Leafs goal scorer and now he’s continuing to cement his mark as the best league wide.
Over the Top Defensive Play
When you think of players to win the Selke award, you automatically think of players like Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly. Every season, Matthews continues to go above and beyond with his play away from the puck and in the defensive zone. It’s safe to say that Matthews should be in the category and should see his name on that award in the future.
Just before their game against the Buffalo Sabres, head coach Don Granato said he should be in contention for the award. If there’s one thing that Matthews continues to excel in, as many tend to still over look, is his ability to be a presence on the backcheck and create turnovers.
Among forwards this season with a minimum of 25 games played, Matthews leads in takeaways with 59, the next two being Clayton Keller from the Arizona Coyotes and Anton Lundell from the Florida Panthers. He’s also third in takeaways per 60 with 3.40 behind Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights and Lundell. Among players who have played over 600 minutes at five-on-five, Matthews is 14th overall in expected goals against per 60 with 2.06. For a player to play meaningful minutes, score goals and provide a strong defensive presence as the top centre, that’s really impressive.
This ability to create offense with a defensive mindset play is why he should be considered for this award. The most perfect example is from the Maple Leafs recent game against the Minnesota Wild.
With the play heading the other way, Matthews is able to quickly catch up to the puck carrier and make a timely stick lift in order to regain control of the puck. He quickly gains entry into the offensive zone in transition and works a give and go with Mitch Marner before potting the go-ahead goal. When you think you have beaten and got away from Matthews, think again, because he will be hunting down the puck instantly.
The speed and awareness he has to hustle back and battle for possession speaks volumes to willingness and capability to be a presence on both sides of the puck. He’s a sound two-way threat with his shot and his puck retrieval abilities. When he’s in his own end, Matthews does a great job getting into lanes to break up a play and even save a goal from time to time.
In this clip, Matthews does a great job of providing support for Petr Mrazek. He’s quick to react knowing that the puck is going to cross the line and gets his stick there in time to prevent a goal. With plays like this, we’re seeing a more responsible centreman. This has been a steady progression from Matthews throughout his career being able to prioritize defense when he needs to. Need a little more convincing, this chart from JFreshHockey shows his defensive impact.
Some may point to his inability to play on the penalty kill, as he rarely sees any ice time compared to the likes of Bergeron and O’Reilly. That may be, but you don’t need to be on the penalty kill in order to provide steady and reliable defense and qualify for this award. Matthews has shown that he can be a factor at even strength with his defensive play throughout the season. He is a legitimate 200-foot player in his own way and everyone should take note.
Matthews A Top-Two player
A complete player in his own right, Matthews is maintaining both his goal scoring dominance along with his strong play away from the puck. Becoming this dual threat should have Matthews in the conversation as a top-two player.
It’s difficult to come across a potential 50-goal scoring threat. It’s even more difficult to find a combination of both a sniper and a defensively responsible centreman. Matthews continues to display this game every night, making him extremely dangerous. To see this development is great for him and the Maple Leafs as he continues to take the league by storm.
Overshadowed with past playoff disappointments, Matthews appears to be on a mission to do whatever he can to give the Maple Leafs the success they need in the post season. His success in the regular season could very well carry over to when it matters most.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.