An excellent piece by NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger shed light on the wrist ailment Auston Matthews has been dealing with for most of the season as he’s piled up goals at a historic pace.
According to Matthews’ father, Brian, the injury has been more than just a minor nuisance to play through.
“This has been a hard season, much harder than I think people realize. There were times that he was playing he could barely hold on to his stick. We tried all kinds of different knobs, and everything else.
“It’s not so much that you got knocked down, it’s what are you going to do, how are you going to get off the mat, how are you going to respond? And Auston has really taken that to heart.”
– Brian Matthews on Matthews’ wrist condition, NHL.com
Matthews finished the season with 20 goals in 22 games, a tear that followed his slowest stretch of the season goal-scoring-wise (“just” three goals in 10 games) when he first came back from a few days of rest due to a wrist flareup. The lights-out stretch over the final 22 put Matthews’ 41 goals in 52 games eight clear of next-best Connor McDavid, making the Rocket Richard race a more or less a done deal with over 10 games remaining despite a short schedule.
In the words of Sheldon Keefe, “It makes you wonder what could’ve happened had he been healthy all the way through.”
Despite operating at less than full power with his shot, Matthews’ goal-scoring genius is such that he’s only become more inventive in the way he is putting pucks into the net game after game. He has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and score new varieties of goals, be it wraparounds or tips/deflections, in addition to asserting himself physically at the net front.
Sheldon Keefe on Auston Matthews’ goal-scoring accomplishments in 2021
“I don’t think it is new that he is scoring in different ways. He has always done that. He has just done it with even greater frequency, which is the greatest thing. He was scoring at such a high rate as a young player even before this season, and he has taken that to another level.
He has always been a guy who scores in multiple ways — in and around the net, in tight, off the pass, or carrying it and creating a shot for himself. He can score in multiple ways. I think that is obviously the biggest reason you see him separating himself from others in the league.
There are other really great scorers that don’t have as many dimensions to their game. That is a credit to Auston and the positions he puts himself in, and of course, the contributions he gets from his teammates to help with that.
He has had a tremendous season, and yet it’s not been a smooth season. We all know he has been dealing with different injury situations at different times that have directly impacted his ability to shoot and handle the puck.
It is just tremendous. It is a credit to him and the talent that he has. The thing that I have come to really appreciate with a player like him is just how hard he works to continue to stay sharp and not just stay sharp but add different layers and different dimensions to his game, whether it is offseason or in-season.
The amount of work that he puts in — there have been some nights where he has scored a couple of goals, and everybody is talking about him and his goal-scoring and how great his goals are, and the next morning, he is on the ice 30 minutes before the team working at scoring goals.
There is incredible attention to detail with him there. He is working to master that craft. It is great to see him get rewarded.”
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) May 4, 2021
Greater recognition of and commitment to using the physical advantages his 6’3, 225-pound frame affords him in puck battles down low and around the goal line/net, in addition to improved conditioning (at a lighter playing weight this year), has allowed Matthews to play more minutes and get more out of those minutes. The commitment to using his elite hockey sense and physical gifts to dominate the game without the puck has also allowed him to spend even more time on offense — the Leafs have owned more of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals with Matthews on the ice than in any of his previous NHL seasons.
The philosophy from the coaching staff of turning Matthews loose hasn’t hurt his cause, either. His ice time ticked up two-plus minutes a game on average when Sheldon Keefe took over the Leafs’ bench in November 2019, and he’s scored 74 goals in 99 games since that time — far and away the most in the NHL (13 goals more than Mika Zibanejad, 16 more than Leon Draisaitl, 17 more than Alex Ovechkin).
The consistent pairing of one of the league’s best playmakers with its best goal scorer has also played its part — in the 51 games they’ve played together this season, Matthews and Mitch Marner have shared more 5v5 ice time (742 out of 807 5v5 minutes, or 84% of total TOI) than they had in the previous three years combined (696 of 2403 minutes, or 29% of total TOI). Marner has primary assists on 19 of Matthews’ 41 goals, and secondary assists on six others.
It’s a major oversimplification to attribute the team’s power-play slippage to Matthews’ wrist injury alone, but what’s interesting is how we can pretty closely line up the worsening of the injury with when the team’s man-advantage efficiency fell off of a cliff. Since the team’s sweep of the Oilers in late February (Matthews missed two of those three games), it’s gone 6 for its last 78 — a 7.7% success rate, while conceding five shorthanded goals for +1 differential — after clicking at 32.5% in the first 24 games.
That the power play has been so badly underperforming while Matthews is in the midst of such a mind-boggling stretch of form is also a testament to how dominant he has been at even-strength goal scoring, which is, of course, the hardest thing to do in the NHL. 18 of Matthews’ last 20 goals have come at even strength, five of which are game-winners.
Here are a few more eye-popping Matthews stats (Drink it in, Leafs fans. You’re witnessing all-time greatness):
- Matthews finished the season at .79 goals per game, the best goals-per-game for an NHL scoring leader since Alex Ovechkin’s .79 in 2007-08.
- Matthews scored 12 game-winning goals, a single-season franchise record, and he accomplished it in just the first 47 games of the season.
- Matthews led the league in 2020-21 with nine multi-goal games in 52 appearances.
- Matthews became the first American-born player in league history to score 30 or more goals in each of his first five seasons.
- Among active players, Matthews tied Steven Stamkos (2010-11) for the third-fewest games to reach the 30-goal mark, behind only Sidney Crosby (2010-11, 37 GP) Alex Ovechkin (2013-14, 34 GP).
- With 21 goals in his first 23 career games against the Senators, Matthews tied Darryl Sutter for the fewest games played to reach 20 goals versus a single opponent.
- Relevant to the upcoming playoff series, Matthews also recorded points in all 10 regular-season games versus the Habs — 14 total, which surpassed Tomas Kaberle’s franchise record for most points vs. Montreal in a single season.
- Matthews’ 175 goals in his first 300 career games is 40 goals more than both Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark in their first 300.
- Matthews’ eight-game goal streak in late January-early February was tied for the third-longest since 1995-96 behind only Jaromir Jagr (1996-97, 9) and Teemu Selanne (1997-98, 11).
Onto the postseason. Matthews writes the next chapter in his memorable season starting on Thursday night against Montreal.