Why Auston Matthews is running away with Richard race, eyeing 50 goals

Why Auston Matthews is running away with Richard race, eyeing 50 goals
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Auston Matthews was already the clear Maurice Richard Trophy frontrunner heading into Thursday. Really, people like Joe Thornton have been thinking bigger, throwing around Hart and Selke consideration, too. After putting up two goals (and four points) against an overmatched Senators opponent, Auston Matthews is only inspiring even bolder thoughts.

He’s also forcing people to dig really deep for things to complain about. As much as he’s scoring goals, Matthews has only managed two hat tricks during his career.

Yep, that’s about it. Unless you don’t really like his mustache.

Following another impressive outing against the Senators, Auston Matthews now has a staggering 16 goals in 17 games (and 25 points). His near-goal-per-game pace has people wondering if Matthews could somehow score 50 goals in a season where he may only get to play in 56 regular-season games.

For all of the attention the Maple Leafs’ collapse vs. the Senators received, they’re red-hot, and so is Matthews. Let’s dig into why Matthews is scoring goals at such a ridiculous pace. In doing so, maybe we’ll get a better idea about his chances at hitting 50 in this shortened season, among other possibilities.

Why Auston Matthews is on such a goal-scoring pace

He’s on fire shooting-wise, even by his standards

After 17 games, Auston Matthews scored 16 goals on 71 shots on goal. That translates to about a 22.5 shooting percentage.

As elite as Matthews’ shot truly is, it’s unlikely that he’ll maintain this sort of puck luck. Through his previous four seasons, Matthews’ highest shooting percentage was 18.2 in 2017-18. Heading into Thursday, his career shooting percentage was 16.2.

When you’re scoring like Matthews has been, any drop-off could be fairly significant — at least in terms of somehow scoring 50 goals in 56-or-so-games.

Big minutes, and most with Marner

Matthews goal scoring 50 Marner hug
(Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

For years, it was maddening to see Auston Matthews a) not log massive minutes and b) not line up with Marner as much as most of us wanted. There’s a K.I.S.S.* element to a Marner – Matthews partnership: why not pair one of the sport’s most brilliant playmakers with one of the NHL’s deadliest snipers?

Well, the Maple Leafs got the memo this season.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Matthews and Marner lined up together in all but about 42 minutes at even-strength through 16 games. With Joe Thornton now healthy, Matthews could very well line up with two gifted passers most nights (and shifts).

And, again, as important as it is to get Matthews the puck, it’s just as important to get him on the ice. Heading into Thursday’s game, Auston Matthews was averaging 22:09 TOI per game. (The blowout nature of Toronto’s 7-3 win over Ottawa likely explains a more modest 16:49 for Matthews on Thursday.)

Matthews’ minutes have been trending upward for quite some time under Sheldon Keefe. Once the calendar hit 2020, Matthews averaged at least 21:37 TOI each month to close out last season.

Hockey fans, not just Maple Leafs fans, have been clamoring for more Matthews minutes, and for those minutes to come with Marner, for quite some time. While streaks and injuries might cause some disruptions, it’s tough to imagine Keefe going away from those larger trends all that often.

(Granted, there might be some strategic logic to making sure Matthews is reasonably rested for whatever the playoff push might look like.)

* – Keep it Simple, Stupid, of course. (Not calling you stupid, kind reader, also of course.)

Feasting on the North

To put things mildly, Auston Matthews has made the most of his reps against the Ottawa Senators. Even in that embarrassing collapse from a 5-1 lead, Matthews scored two goals and one assist.

After Thursday, Matthews scored six goals and four assists for 10 points in five games against the Senators alone this season. This performance also pushed him close to a goal per game (19 in 20) against Ottawa in his career.

It remains to be seen if the Maple Leafs (13-3-2, first place in All-Canadian North Division with 28 points) can maintain their course toward a division title.

Either way, though, it seems like Matthews, Marner, Connor McDavid, and other top North forwards should be in a position for big nights. On paper, just about every Canadian NHL team can be wobbly on defense.

While the Maple Leafs’ own defensive struggles can sometimes be exaggerated, it’s fair to say that they give up their fair share of chances.

So, the stage is set for Matthews to have room to score, and maybe motivation to outscore the occasional night full of defensive lapses.

Now, do all of these factors combine to make an unlikely 50-goal season probable for Auston Matthews? That’s still asking a lot, but he’s in a prime position to win the Maurice Richard Trophy, and maybe make a strong claim for more individual hardware in 2020-21.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.