Imagine you have never heard of Auston Matthews. What would a little research reveal about him?
Let’s get his vitals: Matthews is 6’3” tall and over 200 lbs, which is a a bit above average for a forward, not huge. He is a left-shooting centre who plays wing on very rare occasions. He likes to score goals. He likes to score goals a lot, actually.
His NHL points so far are 56 percent goals. His regular season points in the NLA (the Swiss League) were 52 percent goals. His US Development Team points were 48 percent goals.
That increase, just as the quality of the goaltending improves and the level of play ramps up, is interesting. One explanation is that the quality of his linemates has dropped, and that’s likely true. The US development teams in particular were incredibly stacked with talent, and most of those players are now WJC gold medalists. But even when he was playing with fellow stars, not Zach Hyman, he was still the overwhelming offensive threat on the ice and he was hogging the goal scoring to a notable degree.
That kind of ratio for a top-level player is hard to find, particularly in a centre. Players like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Wayne Gretzky have always had a lot of assists in addition to a lot of goals throughout their careers. Matthews more resembles Jeff Carter, whose OHL numbers were exactly 50 percent goals while his NHL career shows 53 percent. Max Pacioretty also has similar NHL numbers after an NCAA and AHL career with the more usual ratio for a top centre of somewhere around 30-40 percent goals.
This is a chicken and egg question. Has Mike Babcock put Matthews on the ice primarily with puck-retrievers and distributor-passers because he is a puck hog who scores like breathing, or is Matthews compensating for poor linemates by doing all the shooting? A lot of fans want and expect to see Matthews putting up numbers like McDavid, but he may well be simply a different flavour of elite.
When you watch Matthews play, it’s hard not to compare him to other elite-level thinkers of the game. He is most obviously gifted in what we imperfectly call hockey sense or seeing the ice. But it seems as though he is choosing to put himself where the play will happen, not the puck. McDavid places the puck on the stick of whoever is around, and they score, whoever they are; he’s just that good at reading and creating scoring chances.
If this pattern continues—that is, if this ratio is a thing about Matthews, not just an artifact of the players he is on the ice with right now—he will continue to need those retriever and distributor wingers, not the usual wind up and let ‘er rip type. It bears thinking about that as the years progress, those sorts of wingers are much cheaper to get than players who score a lot themselves. The absolute worst player in the NHL to pair up with Matthews might be Patrik Laine.
Matthews’ overall points rates over his early years was 1.55 and 1.6 points per game in his junior days, 1.28 in the NLA, .9 in the World Championships and is .87 in the NHL. That sort of decline is normal, but it’s interesting to see how high he started as a teenager in easier leagues than the NHL.
His peers at a high scoring level in the NLA are an interesting group. This data is from Elite Prospects, and I set the clock back to 2004 to catch the players who played there in the first lockout.
NLA scoring by PPG since 2004, minimum 15 games played
|John Tavares (C)||28||17||25||42||1.5|
|Dany Heatley (LW/RW)||16||14||10||24||1.5|
|Linus Omark (LW)||48||17||52||69||1.44|
|Henrik Zetterberg (C)||23||16||16||32||1.39|
|Patrice Bergeron (C)||21||11||18||29||1.38|
|Randy Robitaille (C)||116||39||121||160||1.38|
|Tyler Seguin (C/RW)||29||25||15||40||1.38|
|Mike Fisher (C)||21||9||18||27||1.29|
|Auston Matthews (C)||36||24||22||46||1.28|
|Daniel Brière (C)||36||17||29||46||1.28|
|Ville Peltonen (LW)||83||47||57||104||1.25|
|Joe Thornton (C)||73||22||68||90||1.23|
|Pierre-Marc Bouchard (C)||98||29||89||118||1.2|
|Jean-Guy Trudel (LW)||209||106||141||247||1.18|
|Roman Cervenka (C/LW)||44||16||35||51||1.16|
|Patrick Kane (RW)||20||13||10||23||1.15|
|Juraj Kolnik (RW)||184||82||129||211||1.15|
|Fredrik Pettersson (RW)||119||66||70||136||1.14|
|Johnny Pohl (C)||22||3||22||25||1.14|
|Kimmo Rintanen (LW)||355||163||239||402||1.13|
|Glen Metropolit (C)||226||80||173||253||1.12|
Matthews is the only U20 player on that list.
In the NHL, his rookie year points per game rate is right up there with some other impressive names. I went back to 2005 for this list and showed the top 25 for, oh, no reason at all.
NHL rookies 2005-present, at least 15 games played
Matthews has the highest percentage of goals to points of anyone on this list. Remember, this is the NHL’s definition of rookie, so there’s some older players on there.
This is all old-fashioned stuff, points per game and nothing but goals. Let’s look at something modern: expected goals.
DTM About Heart’s Expected Goals as of March 3
This is just a taste of the expected goals data for this season. These are the top players by Individual Expected Goals per 60 minutes with a reasonable number of minutes played. Matthews is extremely far ahead of the pack, and his actual goal rate, the far right column, is higher. He is 19, in case we’ve forgotten.
If you put someone more adept at goal scoring in as his wingers you might get more points, or you may get less, as Matthews suddenly has the puck a lot less. For a high volume shooter like Matthews, you underestimate the value of a puck retriever at your peril. Changing Zach Hyman for someone with a better shot might drop Matthews’ ratio of goals to points, but it might happen the wrong way—by dropping his goals, not by raising his assists. We have evidence that the upgrade from Connor Brown to William Nylander pays off in improved Corsi, but that’s not likely to be a long-term solution if Nylander is to become a centre.
Matthews is who he is. It may be pointless to worry that he’s not sharing the goal scoring wealth around like a more typical elite centre. He seems to have it covered on his own.
Data is from Elite Prospects for the NLA (It includes regular season league games only, not friendlies.), NHL.com for the NHL rookies, and DTM About Heart for the Expected Goals.