Matthews Goal Scoring Is More Impressive Than Just the Numbers

Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans are seeing something very special this season in Auston Matthews‘ assault on 60 goals for the season. And, his goal-scoring exploits are even more impressive when the context of the way hockey is played today is compared to how it was played 40 seasons ago in 1981-82.

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

I have chosen 1981-82 as the comparison because it’s the season in which former Maple Leafs’ great Rick Vaive set the franchise record for most goals in a season. That was the very record Matthews has since shattered and extended on his way toward a season’s total of 60 goals.

No Doubt, This Has Been an Amazing Season for Matthews

This has been an amazing season for Matthews and Maple Leafs’ fans. Although he was held pointless in Tuesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, the fact is that he’s running away with the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals scored in an NHL season.

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

If he scores two more goals, he’ll record only the third 60-goal season in the past 24 seasons. He’s quite an amazing goal scorer. In fact, a goal-scorer with numbers like Matthews hasn’t come around over the past several seasons. The last time any NHL player has scored 60 goals was in 2011-12 when Steven Stamkos did it.

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However, that wasn’t always the case. In my memory and in Edmonton (the city where I lived most of my life), the Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky scored 92 goals during the same 1981-82 NHL season. Obviously, Matthews isn’t close to that number. But no one has come very close for several decades.

The NHL Game Has Changes Drastically in 40 Years

However, many things have changed since 1981-82, the very season that Vaive set the franchise mark of 54 goals that Matthews broke just one week ago against the Dallas Stars. Forty seasons ago, there were many goals scored. 

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For example, during the 1981-82 season, NHL teams only played 80 games. The Maple Leafs were not the team they are today and had a record of 20-44-16. However, they scored 298 goals, but allowed 380 goals. Having played 73 games, the 2021-22 Maple Leafs have scored 279 goals; however, they’ve only allowed 226 goals. 

To put the difference in goal-scoring into perspective, this season’s Maple Leafs haven’t scored as many goals as the 1981-82 Maple Leafs (who lost more than twice the number of games they won); however, only one NHL team – the Florida Panthers (who’ve to date scored 305 goals) – have scored more goals than the Maple Leafs this season or in 1981-82.

In 1981-82, the Oilers were the highest-scoring team and scored 417 goals that season. That’s going to be a full 100 more goals than any NHL team will score this season. 

The Reasons for the Difference

As reader gcmgome noted in the conversation section to a recent post, there are a lot of reasons for the decrease in goal-scoring these days. Specifically, four factors have made goal-scoring more difficult than it once was. Those four factors are (1) the science behind the development of goalie equipment, (2) the size of the modern goalie, (3) modern training and coaching for goalies, and (4) the extensive use of video. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews enjoys scoring goals

However, the single biggest factor is the evolution of the game. Forty years after Vaive scored 54 goals to set the record, the science surrounding the game is much improved. Goalie equipment is far better; today’s goalies are much bigger than they’ve been in the past; today’s goalies now have individual coaches and training regimes; and, today’s goalies have video coaches who break down plays with the purpose of correcting mistakes. 

The game is simply different today. Looking at photos of NHL goalies from yesteryear, goalies from the early 1980s used far inferior equipment. In addition, it wasn’t unusual for a team’s number one goalie to have a save percentage quite a bit under .900 and be considered a great goalie.

Using the Oilers as an example again, eventual Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr put together a strong record of 28-5-14 in 1981-82. His save percentage that season was .898 and his goals-against-average was 3.31. 

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Fuhr was a Hockey Hall of Fame goalie, and he entered the Hall with a save percentage of .887. He had a save percentage over .900 (barely) only two seasons with the St. Louis Blues. Fuhr was 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds. John Vanbiesbrouck had a great and long NHL career and he was 5-foot-8 and 164 pounds. Goalies were far smaller, by and large (I know, cheap pun).

Matthews’ Numbers Are Considerably More Impressive When Context Is Considered

The fact is that Matthews’ goal totals this season are more impressive than a similar number of goals scored in the early 1980s. Goals today are scored against bigger, better-trained goalies who have the advantages of lighter and better equipment. They are also being scored against goalies who have the advantages of video and personal coaching. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Can Auston Matthews hit 60 goals this season?
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The fact is that Matthews’ goals are more impressive than they seem just by comparing one number to another number. While the number of goals is an unchanging fact, that number is nuanced by a variety of factors that have made it more difficult to score now than it was 40 seasons ago.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Is Finally Stepping Into Leadership Role

Taking nothing away from the greats of the past, because they were absolutely great. However, Matthews is also great; and, he’s putting up big numbers at a time in NHL history when reaching those big numbers is tougher than it used to be.

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