Are Matthews’ & Marner’s Individual Goals Worth the Maple Leafs’ Risk?

After the Washington Capitals game, when Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe was speaking to the media, he laid out the team’s priorities for the end of the regular season. In a few words, they are (1) winning home-ice advantage, (2) resting key players, and (3) assessing the lay of the land in terms of injuries after each game that has just been played.

Specifically, Keefe said “We still have to secure home-ice advantage. That is important for us. We have an opportunity to do that on home ice and get that taken care of. That is important.” 

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He followed by saying, “We have to take care of our players here just like with our decision to give John the night off today. That was important for us.” Keefe gets it. For a successful postseason run, his players must be rested and injury free.

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe and Auston Matthews – on the same page?
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Finally, he noted that “We will see where we are at with guys and see how we come out of today.” [This last note suggests that – and I know I’m using the word incorrectly, post-game triage is a fact of life in today’s NHL. There are always smaller and larger injuries that must be managed and assessed after every game.]

Balancing Both Individual and Team Goals

I think it’s worth taking coach Keefe at his word but also considering what that might mean against the personal quests for two of his young stars on the team. For the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff, it has to be a bit of a balancing act. Team goals vs. individual achievements.

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Obviously, the team wants the home-ice advantage. That’s the key. But what if they beat the Detroit Red Wings tonight? What if Matthews scores his 59th goal of the season and Marner reaches 99 points? Do they sit Matthews and Marner while they are just short of these milestones? 

Typical rhetoric aside, I can’t imagine this is an easy choice for anyone in the organization.

How Important Is Auston Matthews Reaching 60 Goals?

The language in most team sports seems to always follow a pattern. First, athletes play up team goals and play down individual goals. That makes sense to me, and I buy into the fact that a winning team trumps individual achievement. However, I simply don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that individual goals are easily sacrificed in the minds of the athletes who are chasing them. 

Teams hope their young athletes are both proud and driven. That helps everyone.

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These comments are a precursor to the fact that Auston Matthews has not scored a goal in over two weeks. He’s played well; he’s dominated games; and, his team is winning. Still, he’s been sitting on 58 goals for a long time now. He’ll likely win the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals scored this season. Still, …

Does It Really Matter If Matthews and Marner Achieve Personal Goals?

Does it really matter if Matthews scores 60 goals? Or, for that matter if his first-line partner Marner hits the century mark? Probably, the answer is Yes and No. The pragmatist in me knows that once home ice is secured for the postseason, resting both players makes a ton of sense. 

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Still, I can’t imagine that Matthews and Marner don’t want to hit those goals. They do. Matthews had two assists in Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Capitals; and, those assists pushed his point total to 104, which is by far his career-best point total. He wants more. He seeks a legacy.

Matthews has been firing shots at the net; however, similar to his failed shootout experience, many have clanged off the crossbar. Others have just missed. I look for Matthews to push hard to reach 60 goals. It might be the tipping point for also winning the Hart Trophy as well. Such recognition matters.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I’ve said this before, but it seems worth repeating. It’s easy to say that individual goals don’t matter that much in comparison to team goals. It’s also correct. However, I don’t think for a minute that they don’t matter to the individual players who are seeking them. How to balance both is the question.

Related: Mitch Marner Has Proved to Be Most Valuable of Maple Leafs’ Core Four

Matthews would love to score 60 goals. Marner would love to hit 100 points. The question is if the coaching staff might see these goals as worthy of risking an injury – no matter how unlikely that might be – to help players reach these individual goals? 

I believe it is.