At only 22 years old Auston Matthews is on pace to score 56 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
Does the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise player have a claim as the best scorer of this generation?
The last consensus generational goal scorer in the NHL was Alexander Ovechkin, who may end his career as the greatest goal scorer of all-time. As we turn over a new generational leaf, could Auston Matthews be the best goal scorer to come into the NHL since Ovechkin’s 2004 draft?
Matthews has certainly made a compelling case in his young career. Since entering the NHL in 2016, Matthews has amassed 142 goals in 257 games. His scoring rate of 0.55 goals/game (G/GP) leads the NHL over that time. Matthews is also the first player since Ovechkin to score at that rate in his first four seasons.
A list of possible contestants to be the strongest scorer since Ovechkin’s draft class should include the likes of Auston Matthews, Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, and Connor McDavid.
Matthews is the only one of this select group of players to score at a 40+ goal pace in each of his first four seasons. He also ranks first among these five players in career goals/GP, even strength goals/GP and shots/GP despite being the youngest player among them.
That said, Steven Stamkos also began his career at a torrid pace, winning the Art Ross twice in his first four seasons before transitioning into a more prevalent playmaking role.
In contrast, David Pastrnak’s goal scoring is peaking well into his 6th season in the NHL, in which he is currently on pace for 60+ goals, albeit with the help of two future hall-of-famers (Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand) on his line.
What will Auston Matthews’ career trajectory look like moving forward? There are multiple factors that suggest his scoring production could jump even higher.
The first of those factors is ice time. Matthews has only averaged 18:37 minutes of ice time per game in his career and 2:30 of power-play ice time. Those averages are criminally low in comparison to Ovechkin’s average of 22:16 minutes of ice time per game and 5:49 of power-play ice time in his first four seasons.
The second factor is his supporting cast. Matthews has played with a number of players up and down the lineup over his four seasons.
Until recently, Matthews has never consistently played with Mitch Marner. The greatest goal scorers in the game need to be accompanied by talented playmakers to unlock their full potential.
The third factor is coaching. Coach Sheldon Keefe has been able to unlock the potential of Auston Matthews far better than Mike Babcock in the past.
Keefe has leaned more on his first power-play unit, placed Matthews on a line with Mitch Marner, and increased Matthews’ average ice time to over 20 minutes/game. In the 22 games since the coaching change, Matthews has scored at a rate of 63 goals and 101 points per 82 games.
An Even-Strength Machine
Matthews truly sets himself apart with his even strength scoring.
At 5v5 over his career, his 1.55 goals/60 minutes leads the NHL, over 25% higher than the second place Steven Stamkos at 1.22 goals/60 minutes. Matthews is clearly the best even strength scorer of the past decade, but a deeper dive at Matthews’ numbers tells an even more extraordinary story.
In the modern era (since 1967-68), Auston Matthews is third among all players in even strength goals per game (0.42), trailing only Mike Bossy (0.51) and Mario Lemieux (0.44). Both players played during much higher scoring eras.
After adjusting for the scoring rates of different eras, Matthews leads the entire modern era in even strength goals per game (0.52) by a substantial margin over Alexander Ovechkin (0.43), Connor McDavid (0.42), Mike Bossy (0.41) and Mario Lemieux (0.39).
With exceptional tools, talented teammates, more ice time, and the peak of his career still ahead of him, the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise player will likely leave his legacy as the greatest scorer of his generation.