With his two goals on Sunday during the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-4 Centennial Classic win over the Detroit Red Wings, Auston Matthews hit a nice little milestone in his rookie season by reaching the 20-goal mark.
It not only moves him back ahead of Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine for the rookie goal scoring lead, but also moved him into a tie with Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter for the No. 2 spot in the entire NHL.
We should talk about this a little bit because what Matthews is doing is this pretty incredible for a first year player that is still a year away from celebrating his 20th birthday (and we will include Laine in this as well, because he is from the same draft class and is the same age and is scoring at almost equally absurd rate).
First, just reaching the 20-goal mark is a significant accomplishment on its own.
In the history of the league he is only the 57th player to be under the age of 20 and score at least 20 goals during their first season in the league. But remember, he has reached that number in only 36 games to this point.
If you project his current goal scoring pace out over an 82-game season he is currently on a pace for 45 goals this season.
As a 19-year-old.
If he maintains that pace, or anything even close to it and at least tops the 40-goal mark, it would put him in a pretty exclusive club as only five players under the age of 20 have scored more than 40 goals in their first season in the league.
The list is an impressive one (numbers via Hockey-Reference).
- Wayne Gretzky scored 51 goals during the 1979-80 season at the age of 19.
- Dale Hawerchuk scored 45 during the 1981-82 season at the age of 18.
- Mario Lemieux scored 43 during the 1984-85 season at the age of 18.
- Eric Lindros scored 41 during the 1992-93 season at the age of 19.
- Sylvain Turgeon scored 40 during the 1983-84 season at the age of 19.
Sidney Crosby just missed making this list in 2005-06 when he scored 39 goals at the age of 18.
What stands out about this list, aside from the fact that there are only five players (including four Hall of Famers) is that all of them had those seasons during a time when goal scoring was at its peak level in the league.
Just consider that during the 1983-84 season when Turgeon scored his 40 goals for the Hartford Whalers, there were 24 players that topped the 40-goal mark.
Auston Matthews is not playing in such an era.
By comparison, there are only four players that are currently on a pace for 40 goals this season — Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter, Auston Matthews, and David Pastrnak.
Laine, whose rookie season is just as impressive as Matthews’, is just under that pace, currently on track for 39 goals if he continues on his same pace.
You have to go back to the 2010-11 season to find the most recent time the NHL had more than four 40-goal scorers in a single season, and even then there were only five.
It is simply a number that only a very small handful of the very best players are capable of reaching in a given season. The only two players that can seem to do it with any level of consistency are Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
The question for Matthews is going to be whether or not he is going to be able to maintain this pace for the rest of the season. A quick look at the numbers that can help us project that are certainly encouraging for him and the Maple Leafs.
First, it is not like his goal total this season is the result of an unreasonable high or unsustainable shooting percentage. Currently at 15 percent it is definitely a higher number than your average NHL forward, but Matthews isn’t your average NHL forward. That number is probably right around what you could reasonably expect for a player with his skill set.
But what is most encouraging for him is the fact that he puts a ton of shots on goal, and that is the absolute biggest factor in being a consistent, top goal scorer. Players that have a huge goal scoring season that is carried by a high shooting percentage and low shot volume tend to regress the next year or cool down as that particular season progresses. The elites do it through shot volume, and right now that is exactly what Matthews is giving the Maple Leafs. After Sunday’s game his 3.70 shot per game average is currently the third best mark in the NHL (minimum 20 games played) behind only San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns and Alex Ovechkin. If you wanted to look for an area where Matthews separates himself from Laine, this would be it (Laine is shooting at 18 percent and averaging a full shot per game less than Matthews).
At some point he is going to hit another dry spell in the goal scoring department this season because it happens to every player in the league at some point (it’s already happened to Matthews himself this season, and everybody briefly freaked out about it). But when you have a player that is posting dominant possession numbers and gets a ton of pucks on net the way Matthews is, and also has incredible talent he is also going to be capable of scoring goals in bunches the way he has over the past month.
Right now the Maple Leafs are making a serious push for a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, and what is looking to be a rather historic season for the No. 1 overall pick is playing a pretty massive role in it.