Recently here at TLN, Brock Seguin predicted Auston Matthews would once again hit the 40 goal mark next season (he even gave him an extra goal for good measure) while adding nine assists to last year’s total of 29. This would result in Matthews adding ten points to last year’s total of 69, which, in my opinion, was pretty nice. Naturally, this got me wondering whether it was likely that Matthews was going to repeat his 40 goal season while simultaneously increasing his total assists by a significant margin.
First I have to make one thing clear. If Patrick Marleau replaces Zach Hyman on the Matthews-Nylander duo, Matthews’ assist totals will almost definitely increase by a decent margin. If Marleau also replaces Komarov as the net front presence on the second powerplay unit which runs through Matthews-Nylander, you can probably pencil in a couple more. Glad we cleared that up.
Let’s first dig into the question of whether Matthews will once again score at the outrageous rate that he did in his rookie season. Matthews led the entire NHL in 5v5 goals with 30 and was second in goals per hour behind only Jake Guentzel who converted on 21.13% of his 5v5 shots over 40 games, which is not a sustainable rate. Matthews converted on 13.82% of his 5v5 shots, which is still quite high, but not astronomical. Matthews also ranked sixth in 5v5 shots per hour, so even if his shooting percentage regresses closer to the mean, he’s still going to score a lot of goals. It’s also probable that he continues to build upon his shot rate over the next few years as he improves, since he was only 19 years old last year, so a little bit of regression in the conversion rate could be balanced out with a little growth in the shot volume department.
I also wonder if, with Marleau added to the fold, Matthews could spend some time as the net front guy on the powerplay this season, since that’s where he does his best work at 5v5. He already seems to be one of the best in the game at collecting pucks in tight areas and quickly getting a good shot off. It sounds like a cliche when I say it’s on his stick and then off it in a matter of half a second, but it really rings true here. Maybe he could chip in a couple of extra goals patrolling the immediate area around the net on the PP, rather than the flank opposite of Nylander where he spent most of his powerplay time last season. I could envision a scenario where Matthews and Marleau each spend time in that spot. Here are some examples of why I think Matthews could thrive in that situation.
You get the idea. He can corral the puck and get a good shot off in one motion while in tight spaces and with seemingly no time to work. This is one of the unique assets of his game that, to me, is clearly a product of the environment in which he learned to play the game. It doesn’t even matter where the puck is relative to his body or what kind of awkward way his body is contorted. He’s going to get a lot on the shot either way and you aren’t going to have much time to react, especially when all of his shots are coming from dead centre in the slot, which they already do at 5v5.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you after looking at the shot location chart above, but Matthews ranked second in the NHL (behind Connor McDavid) in high danger shots at 5v5 last season. A shooting talent like that taking that many shots from the most dangerous area on the ice is a lethal combination.
Intuitively, when combining all of these things together, maybe it’s not insane to think that Matthews’ conversion rate isn’t going regress all that much in the long run.
Now that I’ve blown all of your minds by suggesting that Matthews is, in fact, very good at scoring goals, let’s dig into the passing department, which is more difficult to quantify.
The first thing that stands out to me here is that 20 of Matthews’ 29 assists were primary assists. All it will take is a little better luck for him to tack on a few extra secondary assists, which are really just noise, but those bring the totals up, which is what we’re trying to project in this exercise. Matthews also had only 12 assists at 5v5, less than four Leafs defenders, including Matt Hunwick. This likely had a lot to do with Hyman being strapped to his side at 5v5 and only managing six goals despite somehow scoring four shorthanded. To be fair, I think Hyman was awfully unlucky last year. He had the closest average shot distance on the team (the only Leaf who shot from closer to the net on average than Matthews) and, while he’s never going to be an elite finisher like his linemate, he’s probably not going to shoot 4.4% at 5v5 forever if he continues to consistently get chances from the top of the crease. This is to say that even if Marleau doesn’t take Hyman’s place, there are likely a couple more 5v5 assists to be had this year.
Another encouraging note is that Matthews racked up shot assists at an above average rate last year, meaning he made passes which directly led to shots more regularly than the average NHLer. Some of this most likely has to do with the fact that the Leafs racked up shots at a rate that only two other teams exceeded, but again, we’re talking about totals here so that doesn’t really matter.
When accounting for the types of passes Matthews makes (ie. from behind the net to slot, royal road etc.) his playmaking grade comes down to pretty much exactly league average for a forward. Going by this, Matthews could’ve expected to produce .7 assists per hour, only slightly better than his actual observed rate of .62 assists per hour.
Ultimately, Matthews strongest attribute is clearly not his playmaking abilities, despite it appearing so on the play below, but he’s probably still a little better than his totals showed last year.
It seems likely to me that Matthews will be the type of guy who puts up more goals than assists on a year to year basis, despite that type of player being relatively rare.
Taking into account a potential slight regression in shooting percentage, a potential increase in shot volume due to age-related improvement, linemates potentially putting the puck in the net more often and maybe spending some time closer to the net on the powerplay, Seguin’s prediction of 41 goals and 79 points is pretty close to what I would project for Matthews in this upcoming season.