Auston Matthews is having a rookie season for the ages

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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).

  1. Wayne Gretzky scored 51 goals during the 1979-80 season at the age of 19.
  2. Dale Hawerchuk scored 45 during the 1981-82 season at the age of 18.
  3. Mario Lemieux scored 43 during the 1984-85 season at the age of 18.
  4. Eric Lindros scored 41 during the 1992-93 season at the age of 19.
  5. 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.

More: Maple Leafs win Centennial Classic thriller

We have a (minor league) trade to announce

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 28:  Michael Latta #17 of the Los Angeles Kings during a preseason game at Staples Center on September 28, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings have made a minor league trade on Saturday.

The Blackhawks acquired forward Michael Latta, who has 113 games of NHL experience with the Washington Capitals, in exchange for defenseman Cameron Schilling.

Latta will report to the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, according to the Blackhawks. In 29 games this season with the Ontario Reign, Latta has two goals and six points.

Schilling, 28, is expected to be assigned to the Reign, the team said in a release.

In 40 games this season with the IceHogs, Schilling has seven goals and 17 points.

Singing the Blues: St. Louis continues recent skid

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues walks on the ice in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Make that three straight losses for the St. Louis Blues, who have only four wins in their last 10 games.

The Blues lost to the Winnipeg Jets by a final score of 5-3 on Saturday. Late attempts at a comeback from four goals down were fleeting and unsuccessful. Once in competition for the Central Division, St. Louis has fallen off the pace in these times of struggle and is now part of the pack fighting for a wild card spot in the West.

In the last three games, the Blues have given up 18 goals. Eighteen goals.

That is highly uncharacteristic of a Ken Hitchcock-coached team, and the Blues have been one of the stingiest clubs in the NHL over the last five years. Jake Allen‘s struggles have been well documented and he didn’t even travel with the team to Winnipeg.

These are difficult times for the Blues, who turned to Pheonix Copley, who had never started an NHL game before today, in goal versus the Jets.

Despite giving up five goals on 29 shots, Hitchcock praised the play of Copley. And he likes the amount of scoring chances his team is producing. But their own mistakes keep piling up, and they keep piling into the St. Louis net at what is now an alarming rate.

The Blues trailed 2-1 entering the third period, but gave up a Bryan Little power play goal just over two minutes later and they fell further behind. It was a critical moment in the game for St. Louis. The floodgates opened from there for the Jets.

“We left the game out there ,” Hitchcock told reporters.

“It’s tough. Quite frankly, we’re allowing too many goals against, obviously. Too many easy scoring chances. We’re getting scored on killing penalties now. If we clean up our own end, both five-on-five and five-on-four, it will help us a lot.”

Desjardins: Horvat is ‘fine’ after taking a slap shot to the head

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Before the celebration of Henrik Sedin reaching 1,000 career points, there was plenty of concern for one of the Canucks’ top young players.

Late in the first period, Bo Horvat was skating behind the Florida net when he was struck in the back of the head by a Nikita Tryamkin slap shot. Horvat immediately hit the ice. He was down for a brief period, but did skate off under his own power.

The good news: He returned to the game after missing a brief time.

On Saturday, the Canucks sent out a photo showing the damage Horvat suffered — a fairly large cut to the back of his head, which required several stitches.

“I would assume he was forced out by the spotter,” said coach Willie Desjardins following Vancouver’s win on Friday. “Whenever you see something like that, you’ll probably check it out, especially if he was bleeding.”

“They took a look at him and he’s fine.”

More good news for the Canucks.

In his third NHL season, Horvat is emerging as a critical component of this team. He’s 21 years old, is tied with Henrik for the team lead in points, with 30 in 47 games, and is on his way to next weekend’s NHL All-Star event. Further to that, the Canucks are in a transition, with a younger core expected to eventually take over from the lasting members of the current core, most notably Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who are both 36 years old.

The Canucks are also in a fight for a playoff spot, and injury to one of their top centers, which Horvat is, would certainly make the hunt for the post-season that much more difficult.

Sitting one point out of the second wild card spot in the West, the Canucks begin a three-game road trip by facing the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.

Conor Sheary seems to have found a home on Sidney Crosby’s line

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 18:  Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates the puck against Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on January 18, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Listed at only 5-7, 175 pounds, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Conor Sheary is the type of player that would have had a difficult time getting a real opportunity in the NHL a decade or two ago. Heck, even today as smaller, speedier, and more skilled forwards become more common throughout the league, there are still probably a handful of teams that would look at him and immediately decide he is too small and not physical enough to get a real shot, no matter how productive he has been at every level he has played at.

After getting a call-up to the Penguins in the middle of the 2015-16 season and playing his way into a regular spot in the lineup, Sheary has become one of the most productive players on the Penguins roster this season, while also appearing to be a perfect match alongside Sidney Crosby on the team’s top line.

Finding linemates for Crosby has always been a topic of discussion when it comes to the Penguins, and there always seems to be a similar recipe for what type of player works best: North-south, straight line players that can play with speed. For a few years Pascal Dupuis was a perfect match for what seemed to work best on Crosby’s wing, and you can see a lot of those same elements in Sheary’s game, especially when it comes to the speed and quickness flying up the wing.

It is showing up in the numbers.

When on the ice together this season the Penguins have outscored teams by a 15-6 margin when Crosby and Sheary are on the ice together and controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during 5-on-5 play. In recent games the Penguins have had Crosby skating between Sheary and Bryan Rust, a trio that has already scored 11 goals in only 164 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season (that is more than four goals per 60 minutes. Via Puckalytics).

After Sheary’s two-goal performance on Friday night in a 7-1 blowout win over the Carolina Hurricanes, he is now up to 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 38 games for the Penguins this season. Among the team’s forwards, that puts him in fourth in total points (ahead of notable forwards like Patrick Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino) even though he has missed seven games due to injury and is scoring at a rate that would be a 67-point pace over 82 games. Even more than the overall production is the consistency that has come with it as he has gone more than two consecutive games without recording a point just two times this season (more than three games only once; never more than four games).

Crosby is obviously a big part of this equation, but it would also be unfair to overlook Sheary’s contributions, especially when he has been just as productive this season averaging more than three points per 60 minutes (in an admittedly smaller sample size) in his 5-on-5 minutes without Crosby centering his line. He’s not just a good player for being undersized. He’s not just a good player because he is playing alongside Sidney Crosby. He is just … good.

For years the Penguins were a top-heavy team that relied entirely on the core players (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) to almost single handedly carry them as far as they could. They lacked the younger, complementary players that could provide the type of depth needed to be a true Stanley Cup contender. That all started to change last season with a couple of key in-season trades (Hagelin, specifically) and a number of call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Sheary, once an undrafted free agent that was passed over by every team in the league (including the Penguins) multiple times that has now found a home on the team’s top-line next to the league’s best player, has turned out to be one of the most important.