How Auston Matthews Put Together His Best Year Yet in Toronto

Auston Matthews is having the best season of his career and the best scoring season in the storied history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But it won’t mean much unless he and his team can finally get it together in the N.H.L. playoffs.

In his first five seasons after being chosen first overall by Toronto in the 2016 N.H.L. draft, Matthews scored 40, 34, 37, 47, and 41 goals, so plenty of people expected him to push on for 50 this season. But few expected him to have 58, with five games still remaining for his team.

It is the highest total in the league since Steven Stamkos had 60 for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011-12. More important for Toronto fans, it is a Leafs record, surpassing the 54 scored by Rick Vaive in 1981-82.

That puts Matthews, 24, above plenty of Leafs greats from over the years, including legends like Mats Sundin, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler and Frank Mahovlich.

His 44 assists are also a career high, as are his marks in shots, takeaways and even face-off win percentage. He leads the league in hat tricks, with four, double anyone else. And all those numbers come despite his sitting out the team’s last two games with a minor injury, resting for the playoffs that begin on May 2. (All numbers through Tuesday night’s games.)

That suite of statistics has made him a favorite to wrest the Hart Memorial Trophy as most valuable player away from Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.

As with almost any player who significantly increases his goal total, Matthews is shooting somewhat more, 563 times so far, with 330 of them on net. But his shooting percentage this season, 17.6, is right in line with his career numbers, a sign that his workload is increasing organically and not that he has been hogging the puck.

Another reason players’ goal totals suddenly increase is because they are increasingly used on the power play. While Matthews’s power play goal total, 15, is a career high, it is in line with his last two full seasons, when he had 12 in each. (He had 10 last season in 52 games.) His even-strength goals total of 43 so far is eight more than his career best and 10 more than the closest competitor in the league.

(Short-handed play is not a part of Matthews’s game. He has no goals or assists, and just one shot short-handed in his career.)

And while defense is harder to quantify, and sometimes not as important to a center, Matthews is widely touted as a standout on that end of the ice as well.

Matthews owes some of his success to a line that is seriously clicking. His right wing, Mitch Marner, has 61 assists, ranking him in the top 10 in the league, and left wing Michael Bunting is a candidate to be rookie of the year at age 26.

The end result is that the Leafs have 108 points, third best in the league, and are being talked up as a genuine Stanley Cup contender.

But no one is engraving their names on the trophy just yet. In part that is because the teams above them, the Florida Panthers and the Colorado Avalanche, both look exceptional. But it is also because the Leafs have had a habit of crashing in the playoffs, often to teams that look worse on paper.

Last season, the team took a 3-1 series lead in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens, only to lose two games in overtime and then Game 7 at home. Matthews failed to score in any of those last three games.

In 2020, they lost in the qualifying round to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In 2019 and 2018, they lost to the Boston Bruins in the opening round in seven games.

The team has not won any playoff series since 2004 and has not won the Cup since 1967.

When teams lose a lot of close series, there are two common explanations. One is that they were unlucky. The other is that they somehow could not deliver in the clutch. Leafs fans will be hoping hard that the first explanation applies to their team.

It is a quirk of the current N.H.L. that perhaps its two biggest stars, Matthews and McDavid, have failed to go on playoff runs. McDavid, the reigning M.V.P. with the Edmonton Oilers, is now in his seventh year, but has just one playoff-round win.

Although not particularly heralded this year, the Oilers do look set for the playoffs. A Leafs-Oilers Stanley Cup final, anyone, with Matthews and McDavid contesting the opening face-off?

Two sets of Canadian fans would love to see it, and you suspect a lot of neutral fans would also. It might help to make up for the United States-Canada Olympic gold medal game we never got.

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