I’m guessing some Toronto Maple Leafs fans are upset with TSN Hockey Insider Craig Button, who had the “gall” to suggest that the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl is a better hockey player than Auston Matthews. But, just because Button said it, is it true?
Button is entitled to his opinion; isn’t that what hockey “insiders” do, have opinions? Isn’t it his job to create interest by being provocative? Throw out an idea, get others talking about it to watch TSN?
Actually, I’m being disrespectful. I like Button. He seems like an honest, knowledgeable guy and I have no reason to discount the genuineness of what he says.
Draisaitl is also a great hockey player. No argument from me. However, to suggest that the Maple Leafs’ Matthews isn’t in the same league as Draisaitl ignores too much of the contextual nature of hockey as a team sport.
Both Draisaitl and Matthews Are Great Players
In truth, both Draisaitl and Matthews are great players. Is one better than another? I believe Matthews is as good a player or, if he isn’t this season, will be next season.
Button said: “I think the talk about Auston Matthews as being one of the best players in the league needs to stop. Because he’s not as good as Draisaitl.” That statement ignores too many factors that make it impossible to compare the two.
What Button Is Ignoring
First, Button ignoring the differences in their ages. Draisaitl is two years older than Matthews. His birthday is Oct. 27, 1995, and Matthews’ birthday is Sept. 17, 1997. In other words, in a week, Draisaitl will be 24 years old and Matthews just turned 22 last month.
That’s a huge difference in physical maturity not just age. This is Draisaitl’s fifth full season as an NHL regular, whereas it is Matthews’ fourth. That extra season of experience, when added to the age difference between the two, is huge.
Second, and perhaps the biggest thing Button ignores, is that Draisaitl has something Matthews doesn’t have: Connor McDavid. This season, Matthews has been playing with Mitch Marner and Andreas Johnsson. Last season, he centered an aging Patrick Marleau and William Nylander’s replacement (he was holding out), Tyler Ennis or Kasperi Kapanen. Both Marleau and Ennis are now gone. Kapanen is a good young player, but he isn’t McDavid.
It’s hard to measure one player against another without considering the team that surrounds them. That was particularly true for Matthews during the 2018-19 season. Marleau was a shell of his younger self with declining production. When Nylander came back after signing a last-minute contract, his season was a complete waste. Still, although Matthews was injured, he averaged more than a point per game.
It isn’t that Matthews is playing with poor players, but they aren’t McDavid. Advantage Draisaitl. Draisaitl’s game cannot be separated from McDavid’s. Because Matthews doesn’t have the best player in the world as a partner, it would ignore the facts to believe Draisaitl would be where he is today without McDavid’s partnership.
Third, Matthews is a center and Draisaitl is now playing on the wing. He was drafted as a center and played there before he formed a dynamic duo with McDavid. That duo is too good to separate – and shouldn’t be separated. They form an amazing partnership.
And, that’s my point. Draisaitl is no longer playing center; however, if he were, we’d have a better comparison. Each position has different responsibilities. Wingers are more dependent on their centers to create chances. Thus, when McDavid isn’t going, neither is Draisaitl. Specifically, during the last three games, McDavid’s been pointless. What does Draisaitl have? The answer is a single assist.
Fourth, Draisaitl’s role differs because of the team he plays for. He plays 24 minutes per game because the Oilers have little secondary scoring after their top line. (Ok, this season James Neal has created a more viable second line.)
In contrast, Matthews averages 19 minutes per game and the Maple Leafs’ scoring is more distributed. So, just counting minutes, every fourth game Draisaitl gets an extra game’s worth of ice time. That adds up both in terms of scoring numbers and in terms of experience.
Fifth, Matthews is growing stronger, taking more responsibility, and gaining skills. This season, he’s grown stronger with the puck and is growing more confident carrying the puck into traffic. He’s also shooting the puck with greater strength.
Draisaitl Is a Great Player
That Draisaitl has cracked the NHL’s Top-10 list and is entrenched in many fans’ top-five is great – kudos to him. He’s a great player. There’s no denying what Draisaitl means to the Oilers. It’s true that, if not for McDavid, he’d be the Oilers’ top player.
But, without McDavid, he wouldn’t have scored 50 goals or 55 assists last season. He would be good, but to be great he needs McDavid.
Thanks, Craig Button, for Starting This Conversation
We have to appreciate hockey insiders like Button for helping us talk about hockey. But to contend that Draisaitl is in a “different league” is a stretch. It ignores too many of the contextual variables that make both players important, in different ways, to their team.
Jim Parsons is taking a different side on the issue, so for a counter-argument to this article, take a look at his post that contends Draisaitl is definitely the better player.