He won the Calder Trophy and set Toronto Maple Leaf rookie records with 40 goals and 69 points. He ranks second in even-strength goal scoring behind only Connor McDavid since his debut. He leads the league in goals per hour at all strengths over that same span.
And yet everyone knows that Auston Matthews still has another gear to reach.
He was generally dominant this past season, setting a career high of 73 points in just 68 games, and he followed that up with an impressive showing of five goals and an assist in the playoffs. But even with his production, there are still lulls of inconsistency and areas for improvement. And if he wants team success to follow, Matthews will have to take the next step as a player, and leader, for the Maple Leafs. But which facets of his game need the most improvement if he wants to unlock his true potential?
On a Mike Babcock-coached hockey team, defence always comes first. And despite his reputation as a strong two-way player, Matthews hasn’t had the greatest results in his own end of the rink.
This season, Matthews was very leaky defensively. He was the second-worst Toronto forward in terms of even-strength goals-for percentage at 48.15. He was actually one of only three forwards that were below 50 percent on the season, along with Tyler Ennis and Patrick Marleau.
Despite his terrific offensive abilities, Matthews allowed 3.87 goals against per hour when on the ice – by far the worst rate on the team amongst forwards. And it’s not like this was just bad luck: Matthews also allowed the most scoring chances against per hour at 31.85. Even looking at plain box scores, Matthews was a team-worst minus-nine. When he’s on the ice, the opposition simply generates more chances and goals.
This shot rate chart illustrates Matthews’ defensive struggles perfectly. Notice how the Maple Leafs defend the front of their net relatively well until Matthews is on the ice. When the star centreman is tasked with defending in his own zone, he bleeds shots and scoring chances. And for someone that is supposed to be a top-five player at his position, this simply isn’t acceptable. If Matthews wants to take the next step as a premier player in the National Hockey League, improving in his own zone will be the place to start.
Consistency Is Key
The biggest complaint about Matthews over the course of his career has been his lack of consistency. More precisely, fans seem to take issue with his perceived lack of effort at times.
In regards to effort level, my personal perspective is that professional athletes are generally giving their all. Different players simply express effort in different ways, and with an elite player like Matthews, sometimes he makes things look so easy that it just seems like he isn’t trying. Fellow Maple Leafs William Nylander and Jake Gardiner have often been criticized for their lack of effort too, but I’d argue that it’s their coolness and composure that gets mistaken for laziness. And the same argument can be applied to Matthews.
The stats don’t really support the notion that Matthews is inconsistent, either: this season, his longest scoreless drought was just four games. He had a shot on net in every game but one, and had at least two shots in 63 of 68 games. And frankly, you don’t become the most prolific goal scorer in the league by being inconsistent.
What I think fans really take issue with, and justifiably so, is Matthews’ lack of physicality and aggression. Despite standing at 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, he is hardly a physical force on the ice: he doesn’t lay many hits (just 28 this season) or engage physically very often, and he doesn’t usually use his size to drive to the net. This is probably one of the biggest factors behind his defensive struggles: he simply doesn’t engage opponents aggressively enough in his own zone. He has a terrific defensive stick and uses it well, but when you’re up against the best players in the world, that isn’t enough. That’s something he’ll learn with time and experience.
On the offensive side of things, it’s fair enough to argue that a sniper like Matthews shouldn’t have to sacrifice his body to score – his hands are more than capable. But would it hurt to use his frame a little more aggressively in getting to the net? If nothing else, it would add another dimension to his game to keep defenders honest. And the thing is, we’ve seen him do it with great success on a few occasions.
On the other hand, we’ve also seen him put the shoulder down with disastrous results. Is it worth the risk when he’s already so effective in other areas? That’s up to Matthews to decide.
But that brings us to our next point: health. For Matthews to become a consistent player, he’s going to need to stay healthy. He played all 82 games in his rookie season but since then he’s played 62 and 68 over the past two seasons, respectively. He’s dealt with a variety of injuries to his back and shoulders, and also sustained a concussion. There are already murmurs that Matthews is injury prone, but it’s hard to jump to that conclusion just yet. That said, he’s going to need to play a full season, or at least close to it, to silence the critics.
Leadership and the Captaincy
There’s been speculation that this will finally be the summer that Matthews is named captain. Whether it happens or not, he’s going to have to prove himself as a capable leader.
If Matthews is named captain, it shows that the Maple Leafs’ management, coaching staff, and players believe in his ability to lead the team. But being just 21, he’s still a very young man. And despite his glistening reputation and sky-high potential, he’s still developing and finding his way in the league. Most of the fanbase would likely welcome such an announcement because it seemed destined to happen sooner or later, but there will still be questions surrounding his maturity and readiness for the role. After all, if Matthews is given the “C” this summer, he will be one of the 10 youngest captains in NHL history.
On the other hand, if the front office opts to delay their decision, or even name someone else as captain, there will be another set of questions surrounding Matthews’ leadership. Why isn’t he ready? Will he ever be ready? Is he not the man for the job?
Next Season Will Be a “Prove It” Year
On top of the pressures associated with playing in Toronto, Matthews’ new contract will kick in next season, adding a whole new layer of expectation. Signed for another five years at $11.634 per season, Matthews is currently set to be the second-highest-paid player in the league behind McDavid.
In a lot of ways, it’s going to be a “prove-it” year for the Maple Leafs star centreman: he’s going to need to live up to his new contract, show that he can stay healthy, and just maybe lead the Maple Leafs to a long-awaited playoff run.
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.