Why Matthews’ shift in play type raises ceiling on his post-season success

The yardstick for our judgment Auston Matthews are weirdly high, so please keep that in mind when I say that something has looked … different in my eyes this season.

Since he won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals in the NHL last season, I wasn’t sure I loved being different, so something felt a little weird to me. I still thought he looked good, maybe just a little less offensively dangerous?

If that were true, it would be reasonably understandable. He missed prep and training camp with an off-season wrist surgery and we’ve seen how the lack of camp has affected the players in the past. William Nylander struggled the year he missed camp and Elias Pettersson got off to an extremely slow start into the 2021/22 season.

So I went through a couple of Matthews videos (and some numbers) and came to a conclusion:

I’m an idiot.

Matthews was brilliant for the Leafs and actually did exactly what some fans wanted him to do after scoring one goal after the team’s disappointing post-season retirement where he only scored one goal in seven games. He’s playing a playoff game that’s different, but at least in theory it’s the kind of game that should be more sustainable when the checking is tight and all eyes are on him.

Matthews plays closer to the blue color and more on the road, using a tool he probably hasn’t squeezed the most juice out of in his career: his size. Since he is graceful and agile when he cuts his way through the neutral zone, it’s easy to forget that the guy is a giant. He is six feet tall and plays at a super lean 205 pounds this season. He is a strong, strong man with solid edges and balance, which means he can barely move.

Check out this tip-in goal he scores against the Ducks. Somehow, in their D-Zone coverage, the Ducks ended up with a six-foot right winger Troy Terry covering Matthews Low, which is defensive suicide.

If Matthews decides to post it, it’s like posting my five year old on his Fisher Price tire. The little guy can lean in and push what he wants, but I have to be honest, I barely know he’s there. I have complete control of the territory around the rack, and that’s Matthews versus Terry on this piece. The latter doesn’t even know where to start with the relocation project assigned to him.

Matthews forwards it home like Brodie is shooting a bucket full of pucks so he can practice tips.

Matthews taking this ice cream was a minor issue as he apparently is aware that once he gets there and has established a position two and three punches on it, most players don’t know how to get it away.

It hardly looks like the guy in that GIF is leaning on him at the top, but check out enough of his lower layers and that’s what you keep picking up on. People trying to eliminate him always seem to have done a bad job because he is strong and difficult to control. Watch another giant of a man, Anze Kopitar, take the hit and Matthews is stuck here below the goal line. He even reached out his leg to catch him below the goal line that Matthews crosses like a turnstile.

There appears to have been either an increase in physical comfort or actual mental acceptance that the area below the goal line (and on the net) can be his playground, and he uses that force like the tool it is. Watch Byram bend over and chase after him for just a second on the boards in Bowen Byram, which is why Mitch Marner even has the chance to make that slick little slip up.

If you’re someone who has criticized the Leafs’ top talent for not playing “grainy” enough, or for not playing “playoff style hockey,” Matthews exempted himself from that criticism. These aren’t the most accurate stats, but they stand firm, and his scores per 60 are at the highest level of his career, his hits per 60 are the second highest, and his hits per 60 have skyrocketed from the previous two seasons. The only point these things do for me is a general one, that he’s a lot in the middle of it this year.

Now, just looking at his raw stats, you might feel like things are being delayed a little. His goal and assist rates are below what they typically have per game, but these things are probably the product of the way hockey goes sometimes.

Last season, when he was on the ice for a goal, he scored a point more than 80 percent of the time. This year it was just over 60 percent, the lowest figure in his career. Some of it is luck. He’s also had a couple of seasons in his career where he’s shot over 18 percent (18.5 percent last year), and this year he’s at 14 percent even after hitting three pots in his last game. The points for Matthews will come in bundles, especially because he keeps the action on the ice.

The images below are unblocked rates of fire that took place while Matthews was on the ice for the Leafs. The higher the plus on the offensive, the better, the smaller the minus on the defensive. Shots for are good, shots against are bad. Here’s what Matthews did this season, via HockeyViz and which are very helpful Micah Blake McCurdy. If numbers aren’t your thing, just check out the pictures, which should speak volumes.

Last year the team with Matthews was exceptional in these two areas too, but as you can see, still not as good as this year.

It’s a bloodbath for the Leafs in the O-Zone with him on the ice this season, and it’s all over the other team’s kink and down zone.

So no, his raw scores aren’t his personal bests, but Matthews is currently setting personal bests on every game driving metric I know of. He’s at his best Corsi percentage, Fenwick, shots, chances and goals expected.

Somehow the guy doesn’t have any primary assists at 5v5 right now. How long do you think this will take?

The safe bet is “not very”.

We discussed Matthews Play on our podcast Real Kyper and Bourne (which you might like if your into Leafs stuff), and Nick Kypreos has argued that this is exactly what he wants to see from the big horse the Leafs up front. He notes that to have a good year he doesn’t have to win the Rocket, he has to adapt to a style of play that can prevail when the going gets tough. And so damn raw numbers, Matthews’ game so far has to be seen as a huge plus as I’d say he’s done just that this season so far.