If he keeps this up Auston Matthews will finish with one of the best rookie seasons the NHL has ever seen.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 19-year-old sensation scored twice, including the overtime winner, in last Sunday’s Centennial Classic. As of Jan. 3, he is tied for the scoring lead among all first-year players with 20 goals and 34 points through 37 games. Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine has the same number of points, but has played three more games.
The No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft is currently on pace for 44 goals, a mark surpassed by only seven rookies in NHL history—Alex Ovechkin’s 52 in 2005–06 the most recent in a group that includes Teemu Selanne (76), Mike Bossy (53), Wayne Gretzky (51), Joe Nieuwendyk (51), Dale Hawerchuk (45), and Luc Robitaille (45).
Matthews accomplishing the feat might be more impressive.
Everyone on that group, save Gretzky, was older than Matthews as a rookie. And Matthews is performing in an era when the goalies are much bigger and better, and scoring is down substantially.
When Selanne tallied 76 goals for the Winnipeg Jets, for example, teams were averaging 3.63 goals per-game with an average save percentage of .885. Today, the average is 2.73 goals per-game with an average save percentage of .914.
Matthews isn’t making it rain on the power play as Ovechkin did with Washington, when power-play opportunities rose substantially amid rule changes following the 2004–05 lockout. The Russian winger scored 21 of his 52 goals with the man advantage, while adding 28 markers at even-strength.
Ovechkin finished with over 450 minutes of power-play time. Matthews is currently on pace for just over 220 with clubs averaging almost three fewer power plays per game.
As of Jan.1, Matthews was actually on track for the second-most prolific rookie-scoring season at even-strength. He was on pace for 39 even-strength goals, which would trail only Selanne’s 52. The “Great One” himself had 37.
For Matthews to reach these heights in this era at this age, again, makes his potential feats all the more striking.
“I don’t think I’m surprised any more,” Zach Hyman, Matthews’ season-long linemate, said. “When you have a shot like he does and his skill-set, where he’s able to get open, and when you take as many shots as he does—it’s hard to get that many shots and he’s able to generate tons of shots.”
Matthews, to that point, is again heading towards mostly uncharted waters in terms of the number of shots he’s firing, currently averaging 3.7 per-game on goal, and on pace for more than 300. Only three rookies in NHL history have ever fired that many shots in a season: Ovechkin with a record 425, Selanne at 387, and Dale Hawerchuk at 339.
Matthews doesn’t seem to be overly lucky either. He’s scoring on 15 percent of his shots, a fairly sustainable number.
“He’s got a skillset that allows him to do things that a lot of other people can’t do,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “But on top of that he’s got a good brain, he works hard, and he’s been playing with good teammates.”
The American centre does need to get better in the faceoff circle. He is among the NHL’s worst at winning face-offs at under 45 percent.
It seemed Matthews was destined for greatness when he scored four goals in Toronto’s season opener against Ottawa.