Why you shouldn’t be worried about Auston Matthews’ slump

Photo Credit: Charles Leclaire/USA TODAY SPORTS

Another game, another goalless effort. While his homeland talks about building walls, Auston Matthews has been claimed by media outlets in Toronto have hit a wall, now that his rate of production has slowed down considerably from that beautiful night on October 12th. That’s when he scored four goals in his first NHL game; since then, he has two goals and six assists in fourteen games; hardly mindblowing numbers, especially when you consider that even the bulk of those came before October 15th.

Some are confused. Some are alarmed, even starting to wonder if the Leafs went after the wrong guy. But he’ll be fine.

Slumps are a natural part of the game. They happen to every player, even the great ones. With the talent level in pro sports, you get a pretty good indication of who is better than who in the long run, but even the worst players in the top leagues aren’t exactly slouches. All it takes is for someone to be a little tired or a have an extra jolt of adrenaline to bring the see-saw a little closer on a given night, and those patterns can even hold for a few games. Good players can go cold as quickly as they go hot, and vice versa.

For heaven’s sake, Richard Panik was leading the league in points for a few days and Michael Grabner is a goal away from tying his total from last year already. Carey Price (who is admittedly a top dog rather than a bottom feeder) is 10-0 and has a save percentage that’s nearly 20 points above the second best in history.

But hey, how common is a goal scoring drought for a great young player anyway?

Best of the Best

Let’s pull the young out of the equation. Let’s grab the best goal scoring seasons in the salary cap era and see if anybody’s sticks went cold.

Rk Year Player Goals Longest Drought 5+ Droughts
1 2008 Alex Ovechkin 65 7 Games 1 (7)
2 2012 Steven Stamkos 60 5 Games 1 (5)
3 2006 Jonathan Cheechoo 56 8 Games 1 (8)
4 2009 Alex Ovechkin 56 9 Games 1 (9)
5 2006 Jaromir Jagr 54 5 Games 2 (5, 5)
6 2015 Alex Ovechkin 53 7 Games 1 (7)
7 2008 Ilya Kovalchuk 52 5 Games 1 (5)
8 2006 Ilya Kovalchuk 52 6 Games 2 (6, 6)
9 2007 Vincent Lecavalier 52 7 Games 1 (7)
10 2006 Alex Ovechkin 52 6 Games 3 (6, 5, 6)

Sure enough, everybody had a drought of at least five games. not too many that are nine games long like Matthews, but Ovechkin managed to do it and still walk away with 56 in 2009, the fourth best of this pocket-generation. Once you start going into the 30, 40 goal players, you see them more frequently; players don’t stop shooting, but sometimes they see fewer lanes, don’t have the gas to get so close to the net, or just face hot goalies. This isn’t exactly four-corner accuracy shooting at the skills competition; the mark of an elite player is creating opportunity, and the end result of it sorts itself out later.

First on the Board

For this one, I looked at the rookie seasons of the top forward selected in each draft since 2004.

Year Player Goals Longest Drought 5+ Droughts
2004 Alex Ovechkin 52 6 Games 3 (6, 5, 6)
2005 Sidney Crosby 39 7 Games 4 (7, 5, 5, 5)
2006 Jordan Staal* 29 10 Games 3 (5, 10, 7)
2007 Patrick Kane 21 14 Games 5 (6, 14, 9, 8, 6)
2008 Steven Stamkos 23 13 Games 5 (8, 13, 11, 6, 7)
2009 John Tavares 24 17 Games 5 (5, 6, 9, 17, 6)
2010 Taylor Hall 22 7 Games 4 (7, 7, 5, 6)
2011 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 18 12 Games 4 (5, 12, 5, 11)
2012 Nail Yakupov 17 16 Games 2 (9, 16)
2013 Nathan Mackinnon 24 10 Games 4 (7, 5, 10, 7)
2014 Sam Reinhart* 23 13 Games** 5 (13, 6, 10, 6, 8)
2015 Connor McDavid 16 7 Games 3 (5, 5, 7)

Note the following:

  • Jordan Staal and Sam Reinhart were second overall picks, behind Erik Johnson and Aaron Ekblad.
  • Reinhart was sent back to junior after nine goal-less games in his Draft+1. I included those nine games in the mix, hence the initial drought of 13.
  • Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid have the fewest droughts on this list, but Yakupov’s rookie year was the 2013 lockout season, and McDavid was injured for 34 games.

Even still, it’s clear that slumps are part of the game for these top picks. The only players to not go on a goal-less streak as long as Matthews in their first year were Ovechkin, Crosby, Hall, and McDavid; that’s three generational talents and an elite winger who still managed to go 5+ games without one on four occasions. It’s part of the process for every player; just because a certain Finn is shooting 24% in the prairies right now doesn’t mean that Matthews is irreparably broken.

Doing The Right Things

As I mentioned before, elite players need to create opportunities, so a drought in Matthews’ case is only really concerning if he isn’t putting in the time to try to reverse it. That’s pretty clearly not the case. At 5-on-5, Matthews currently sits seventh among NHL forwards in attempted shots per 60 minutes, first in the league in unblocked attempts, and third in rate of actual shots on goal. 

Yes, he’s scored just 2 of his last 52 on-net efforts, but I have a hard time believing that Auston left Ottawa forgetting how to shoot. If he were to continue that 3.8% conversion rate, he’d be doing so at under half of the league average shooting percentage, which makes no sense for a top-end player who generates opportunities in close-up areas. It’s a pattern that is unlikely to last, to say the least.

Besides putting his efforts towards the net, he remains near the top of Toronto’s charts in just about every possession metric, and is probably having his struggles doubled down on by the fact that William Nylander has also gone cold and that Zach Hyman, two goals in two games be damned, usually isn’t an offensive stalwart. Even through all this, his quick start before the drought means that he’s still hovering around a 65 pace, well above most people’s expectations for his rookie season and a very solid total for an NHL first line centre, let alone one that’s 19 years old.

In short, it’s a shame to see the stick of your superstar go a little cold. Heaven knows Toronto saw enough of that during Phil Kessel’s ups and downs, and it’s understandable that people are left feeling teased after his massive October. But there isn’t a huge need to overthink this; great players have bad stretches and as long as he keeps getting the puck on his stick and heading to the net, good things will start happening again.

  • macreeves

    Mathews must accept some of the responsibility the rest of the blame goes to the equipment. I think he needs a stiffer stick for more control and put the sticks he is now using in a dark place

  • LukeDaDrifter

    I think you can put part of the scoring slump directly on Babcock’s coaching, He is asking all the young guys to be much more responsible defensively. Last week when Matthews was being interviewed he mentioned the D-zone a few times. That tells me it is definitely on his mind. Most of us who played the game remember the elation after your line scores a goal. We tend to forget the dejection the whole line feels when the other guys score while your line is on the ice.

  • STAN

    I’m sure Matthews has hit at least 3 crossbars in the past 6 games. No need to worry. He’s played fewer than 20 NHL games… and remember, he’s still a kid. Good, GREAT, times ahead!!

  • tealeaves

    okay so we shouldn’t worry about matthews slump and we shouldn’t, but can we resurrect those stories of bozak’s unsustainable shooting percentage and how he is due for a slump again. you see, the great thing i learned about stats from this site, is it gives us a reason to justify hating the people we dislike when they have success like bozak well because we have stats and support those we like even when they struggle. and our logic is infallible because we don’t have opinions similar to those that don cherry spews – no we have statistical based facts.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I think you are correct about using stats to create bias articles. If it was Bozak who went 9 games without scoring we would see articles telling us Bozak should be benched to “send him a message” . Or waived or traded for a bag of pucks.

      If one waned to use stats to find reasons to be concerned then here is one. Matthews has scored 2 goals in his last 14 games. Over a 82 games schedule that projects to around 11 of 12 goals. Bozak scored 12 last year,

      • Kanuunankuula

        Yeah, shooting at what percentage? Bozak’s issue is and always was that if he doesn’t score, he is not doing anything. Look at recent goals and him and JVR. Both are so clueless.

        Matthews is playing good with bad luck. If Bozak ever does that (he did last year at some points), I’ll give him the same benefit of the doubt. If you honestly think AM is scoring 11 this year, I don’t know what to tell you other than please change your team.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          I used the analysis of Matthews on a scoring pace of 11/12 goals, to show you can not use statistics to project the future with any degree of accuracy. He has now scored two goals in his last 15 games. How can we possibly know for sure how many he will score in his next 15, when all we have to go on is his last 15. Here we are constantly using data to show things we believe to be true. When the data clearly shows things we don’t believe to be true, we tell the messenger to change his team. Did you see tonight’s game.Bozak and JVR didn’t look as clueless as you claim they are. They picked up 4 points each. JVR now is tied for the lead in points for the Leafs. Bazak in one point behind him. How can you call these two players clueless and expect people to respect you opinion?

          • Kanuunankuula

            Well, if they have a bit of sense, yeah. Bozak and JVR have been a train wreck this year, one good game does not wash away the bad. Never said they’re not good offensively, they’re just bad enough defensively so that the sum is negative. Does this 4 point night negate the nights when they just stand still in the D-zone and let the other team score? Also look at their stats @home vs away. They’re getting killed without the last change and Babcock sheltering them.

            So Matthews is a bust then, better trade him to Montreal for Desharnais so we can have two Bozaks?

  • LukeWarmWater

    I agree about the unique ability of this big kid to hit cross bars, but he has missed some close in chances which simply means he is getting the chances. As I stated in another article he handles himself in the heavy going but I would like to see him use that body a bit more to start knocking the opponents around. I’m seeing a bit of the late great Jean Beliveau in his style. I’m hoping he develops a bit of a mean streak, perhaps Kadri can teach him some of the tricks of the trade, no I’m not talking about shots to the head, but being a bit of an agitator out there. Cause a scrum or two.

    I have no worries about this kid he is the real deal.

  • Brent Wisken

    The Leafs are also developing Matthews as a centre, which is a lot more challenging position than the winger position. It’s also a more defensively responsible position, meaning that it’s harder to accumulate individual points than it would be as a winger, especially for a young centre. He’s looked good out there, has been playing well.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      One could add we tend to expect our high first round draft picks to not only make the NHL squad, but to also become elite as soon as they get here This is unrealistic. Most guys show some brilliance in their first year but they usually need two to three years to show just how good they are. …..21 years of age is a better time to assess how good the player really is.

  • jimithy

    The Leafs are in virgin territory because they have no history of developing or promoting superstars. In fact they frown upon it. Look what they did to Mahovlich, Keon, Sittler, etc. Only after they retired did the team acknowledge them. Sticking them on ‘Legends Row’ afterwards was just another way of cashing in.

  • LukeWarmWater

    Brother Luke I tend to agree with you that he appears to be a bit of a pacifist in the sense of as you suggested a Lady Byng candidate. What concerns me about that is his opposition then realise he has a bulls eye on the back of his jersey where they can whack, hack and slash with a certain amount of impunity. He has to learn and he will that he has to dish some of that crap back to make the opposing defencemen respect him.

    An analogy was the opening of the Jays and Indians series in which the three Jay power hitters in the first inning all got at least one pitch of chin music. The Cleveland top batters didn’t receive retaliation.

    A third example will be if the Raptors simply allow the all-star Irving tomorrow night to simply waltz into the key all night without a couple of hard fouls.

    But as you and I both agree this is a young man who has all the skills and plays a 200 foot game. He is mature beyond his years and similar to McDavid will soon be the team captain.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I certainly didn’t mean Lady Byng candidate in any derogatory way. I am sure Matthews has been told all his life not to respond to the hacks and slashes as he is much more valuable to the team sitting on the bench, available for his next shift than sitting in the penalty box. Opposing teams always get a bonus when they can get a top player off the ice. Let’s not forget when if he dishes out some of that crap there is a real good chance he is the only one who gets the penalty, or worse it leads to 2 minutes plus a 5 minute major for fighting. I do get your point though. Some pushing back without crossing certain lines would be helpful. This may take him a while to learn. Even Kessel would occasionally swing a two hander at some of the provokers. Personally I think if the hacking and slashing get too far out of hand we are more likely to see Martin slotting in on his wing. Everyone seems to be on their best behavior when he is on the ice. Contrary to ” Kanuunankuula’s” opinion Martin does not go out on the ice looking for fights. He does finish them though. Even in his fight with Stetcher he did not receive an instigator penalty. Babcock said when asked about how he feels about Martin ” we are not getting those face-washes after the whistle like we were all last year”

  • chinook

    I didn’t get past the headline on this one. Made me chuckle too hard. Seems just like when fans yell “fire that bum of a coach!” when the team is on a big losing streak and management says “we have full confidence in ____”. And then you KNOW the coach is getting fired (no matter how good he really is). Poor Matthews, with this vote of confidence, he is jinxed and won’t score for months.