Auston Matthews is the best player on the Leafs, and that never needs to be explained to anyone. Everyone knows that Matthews will lead our Top 25 ranking until he ages out. Courtesy of his birthdate, he’ll be back next year, number one unanimously, once again.
And yet, Matthews has never had a more uncertain future. He will begin his sixth season with new expectations, new levels he will be expected to achieve, and more he has to find to bring to the team. So you won the Richard? So what? Anything less than even more glory is going to get someone fired.
The lack of an NHL Awards show this summer did Matthews a big favour. He didn’t have to go to Vegas, sit in the crowd, listen to his name mentioned as a Hart contender and go up on stage to be handed the trophy named after one of the greatest players to ever play for the Montréal Canadiens just a few days after that team had gone all the way to the final.
Imagine how that would feel standing there, listening to the applause for the hollowest of personal achievements, knowing that a collective embarrassing failure was his real reward for the 2021 season. Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. I come not to praise Matthews, or bury him, but to ask for more than an individual achievement. Much more.
I’ve tried to think of a single NHL player — drafted first overall, acclaimed before he was even drafted, a scoring star, a 1C on any team in the NHL but one or two, a big-minute, go-to guy — who is not the captain. The discussion in 2018 around the naming of a Leafs captain was so Toronto-typical, that I just tried very hard to ignore it, but given his criminal behaviour of an embarrassing and offensive kind that summer, he was never getting the C. But the weird thing about it all is that, if he’d had the character when sober to never do what he did when drunk, he still might not have been captain.
The Maple Leafs brass, all caught up in the drama they created by not firing Mike Babcock in the summer, seemed to really like Morgan Rielly for the job as well. And when it became obvious that it had to be the very lowkey John Tavares, Auston Matthews failed a test that almost every other superstar in the NHL has either passed on merit, or been made to look like he has.
He failed another in May.
The Percentages and the Bounces
Auston Matthews, with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, maintained their regular season individual quality of shot location in the playoffs last May. The usual expectation is that players, even very good ones, lose some of their offensive punch in the allegedly tougher environment of the playoffs. Matthews actually got a shade better. He maintained his on-ice quality and pace of shots for (I’m avoiding saying Expected Goals per 60, but that’s what I mean), and he actually increased his percentages when weighted for quality over what they were in the regular season.
A case can be made that it all was the bounces not going their way that ended the playoffs for the Leafs. That even with Carey Price running hot, John Tavares out, and Sheldon Keefe playing in sandbox mode, a little puck luck, and it would have been on to round two.
Except for this:
That’s how many times the puck left the stick of the Richard winner in all situations in each playoff game. Game Five, the first chance to close out the series, and he managed four. Game Six, with two chances left, he rallied for his busiest game, although his individual stats tell you those weren’t quality shots. In Game Seven, when it mattered most, it was four again.
In Game Five against Columbus in 2020, Matthews had eight, and I thought that was bad. In Game Seven in 2019 against Boston, he had another eight after a bad number in every game before it.
Matthews played very well in the playoffs this year, he absolutely did, and it can seem unfair to blame him for a loss that was a collective failure. He’s not a tennis player double faulting on every serve in the clinching game. He’s not a pole vaulter who can clear the bar in practice, but never in the stadium. He’s not freezing up in a shootout. He’s playing a team sport, and it takes more than one player to lose a Game Seven.
And yet, he’s the guy, the superstar, the 1C on every team but one or two. Maybe it isn’t fair, and maybe it’s all just chance that in two clinching games with home ice advantage, he was bad — if that result was even so bad. Some confirmation is necessary to make sure I haven’t lost perspective
Matthews shot four times or less in only 10 games all season. His individual Expected Goals were that low four times total in the regular season. Which means that he performed at his worst in two of the most important games of the season. Or put another way: He performed well in 33% of the games that mattered last season. That’s the percentage that I can’t stop looking at.
Matthews is a shooter. As this GAR chart shows you (and remember GAR is a good descriptive of what happened, heavily influenced by shooting and save percentages), Matthews had some small scraps of value added from his defensive results and penalty differential. The power play was an effective zero for him. But the overwhelming share of his value on the ice comes in the way he shoots and the way he gets himself into position to shoot. If those two things don’t happen, he’s as useful as champagne in the Leafs locker room.
Auston Matthews, 24 years old today, five seasons in the can, hundreds of goals, $44 million in career earnings to date, and he should be coasting on glory. He should need a new room in his house for the hardware, and he should be living large, fêted and lauded and renowned for his status as one of the greatest in the game. Hanging with celebrities.
He’s got some of those things, but he’s not going to get the rest if he doesn’t level up. It isn’t fair to demand that, and the Leafs failure is not just his fault, but it is his responsibility to deal with. That’s how life goes sometimes, the reward for a job you fucked up badly is a harder job.
Zach Hyman is an Oiler, and Matthews’ new left winger is not Taylor Hall or Timo Meier or Filip Forsberg. As giddy as fans of bar charts over boxcars are about the players the Leafs signed this offseason, there is no question that the top line is worse, and the only way to fix that in-house is to make the second line a lot worse by moving William Nylander up. Not something I think any of us expect to see anywhere but our imaginations, you understand.
For his 24th birthday, Kyle Dubas got Auston Matthews a league-average winger to elevate above anything he could have dreamed of as a child, and, if we’re all lucky, on to a big overpay on his next contract. There’s no coasting here. The division is going to be brutal, and other teams got a lot better, not this water-treading act Dubas chose. The playoffs won’t present an easier first-round foe than they have before, and the execution of the top stars on the Maple Leafs has to become the gold standard for consistency and excellence in the NHL. Which it has never been.
Auston Matthews has to be at the vanguard of this historic change in the team. If they fail, the whole house that Dubas built comes crashing down. Matthews has to be at least the second-best player in the NHL, he has to be better than last year, he has to work harder, be smarter, keep it going for 82 games and every playoff game. He has to be the man. He has to be the embodiment of the team in more than a television commercial. He has to lead.
If the Leafs fail, then there’s no more Kyle, who believes in him, no more Sheldon, who will give him defenceman minutes. No more guarantee that Mitch Marner is tethered to his hip like a Gucci fanny pack for the rest of his career. No more jobs for the dozens of people Dubas has put into place to work the process, to wait for the bounces, to believe in the concept, and ignore playoff results as too volatile to tell the truth.
No accolades to go with another $10.5 million in earnings.
Go big or go bust. That’s the Maple Leafs this year. And Auston Matthews is their leader.
Scouch: At this point, two things are undeniable. 1) Auston Matthews is an outrageously talented hockey player and the best goal scorer in the NHL. 2) The Leafs could win 82 games with Auston Matthews breaking Gretzky’s goal record in a season but literally nothing matters unless the Leafs start winning series in the playoffs. Whether it’s Auston’s fault or not, he makes “I’m leading this team” money, and “not having it” is not excusable anymore.
Brigstew: Goal man go brrr.
seldo: Damn, we have two more years of figuring out what to say about Matthews? Age faster so we can have some drama around #1.
Hardev: He’s undeniable, but there’s obviously things that need to change if the Leafs are going to improve. I think a lot of that is on the Leafs side, namely better forward depth and more options for goalscorers so Matthews can better show off his dual-threat offense. And on Matthews side, he’s learning how to get through targeted defense on him. I have no doubt he’s figuring it out. I’m just far less confident in another guy making about as much to figure it out.