Where Leafs star Auston Matthews has improved and regressed this year
The NHL's reigning Hart Trophy winner hasn’t matched his MVP level from 2021-22.
Auston Matthews is still operating at a superstar level for the Toronto Maple Leafs but his overall play has been the source of much consternation for some factions of the fan base. The reigning Hart Trophy winner hasn’t matched his MVP level from 2021-22, leading some to conclude there’s something inherently wrong with the 25-year-old.
Matthews has fought through some injuries and recalibrated some aspects of his game, while it’s clear that he’ll fall short of the 60-goal plateau he reached last year.
“In terms of his impact on the game, and the way that he’s helped our team, I’m obviously very happy with the season that he’s had, how he’s competed and battled defensively, the growth that he’s taken as an overall player,” Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas recently said via Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star.
“It’s all been very, very good. And if this is a down season for him offensively, that’s a really good sign in terms of how great a player that he is.”
Matthews can still take over a contest at a moment’s notice, but these instances are happening less frequently than they were a year ago. With 18 games remaining in the regular season, it’s time to evaluate how Matthews’ game has evolved, where he’s improved and where he’s taken a step back throughout the 2022-23 campaign.
Where Matthews has improved
Shot blocking, defensive commitment, tracking back
Matthews leads all NHL forwards in shots blocked, both at 5-on-5 and in all situations, per Natural Stat Trick. This is not a typo — Matthews is ahead of notable defenders like Kris Letang, Miro Heiskanen, Dougie Hamilton and John Carlson, and his commitment to becoming a two-way player has been the most noticeable change in his game this season. Matthews isn’t scoring with the same proficiency as he did last season, but he’s improved significantly in his own end.
The shot-blocking isn’t always a welcome sight for Maple Leafs personnel — Matthews briefly left Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks after blocking a shot — but it’s an easy, transparent marker of his commitment to two-way excellence and speaks to the type of toughness that critics often felt this iteration of the Maple Leafs lacked.
“If anything, he’s dug in even harder defensively to have greater impacts that way,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox on February 27. “That’s what has impressed me most. He hasn’t flinched in terms of his commitment away from the puck.”
Matthews has done a tremendous job of using his massive frame to win loose pucks and shield off attackers entering his defensive zone. He won’t allow the opposition to waltz through the neutral zone for easy offensive entries and will constantly block out passing lanes. Matthews has been doing this all season, but this is best exemplified during a clinic he put on against the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 21.
Auston Matthews and the neutral zone pic.twitter.com/SopwZmhz3n
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 22, 2023
Toronto’s save percentage when Matthews is on the ice at 5-on-5 is a sparkling .931, the best total since his sophomore season. Sportsnet’s Justin Bourne wrote about Matthews’ defensive transformation at the midway point of the season, speaking to the sheer volume of quality defensive plays that he’s made, with a particular emphasis on his league-leading blocked passes he’s made in the defensive zone. Matthews is boasting a 3:2 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio, which isn’t as good as last year, but it’s still elite territory among forwards.
The objective of hockey is to score goals and Matthews’ goal-scoring regression gets all the headlines. Mitch Marner may be the Maple Leafs’ MVP and their best defensive forward this season, but Matthews has been an all-around menace. He has to account for top-line centers every night and he constantly makes it nearly impossible to thread cross-ice passes in his defensive zone. Defense isn’t sexy, but Matthews deserves a firm embrace for how he’s handled himself in his own zone this year.
#LeafsForever Mitch Marner & Auston Matthews lead the NHL in takeaways since the start of last season pic.twitter.com/5TsAKFomu0
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) February 26, 2023
Penalties drawn, physicality
Matthews isn’t just using his ability to box out players on the defensive side. He’s drawn a career-best 22 penalties at 5-on-5 — perhaps learning some techniques from his linemate Michael Bunting — and he’s still a nightmare for defenses to account for. They’re taking calculated bets that hauling him down and sending the Maple Leafs to the power play isn’t as risky as allowing Matthews to push himself into prime scoring locations.
There are some effects of Matthews escalating his physical play that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet. His speed and elite offensive ability, combined with his willingness to crush defenders, is forcing opponents into bad decisions — at the very least, they have to speed up their decision-making when Toronto’s No. 34 is converging upon them. Matthews is more than adept at getting his stick lodged into a puck battle and using his strength to dig the puck out along the walls and in the corners.
Matthews gets SBA rocking after his hit pic.twitter.com/t1RYLnY6Ny
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 14, 2022
It’s notable that Matthews is making a concerted effort to be more physical. It’s evident from the eye test in every game he’s played this year, and it’s allowed him to draw more penalties as a result, since defenders have to account for what he may do with the puck if and when he retrieves it in a contested battle.
It’s paying off for the Maple Leafs. Matthews may not be scoring at the rate that he did in 2022, but he’s getting superstar calls and a friendly whistle that wasn’t afforded to him prior to his MVP season.
Playmaking, gravity effect
Matthews is projected to reach the 45-assist mark once again and his stellar playmaking has been an underrated component of his season to date. And in a team concept, it’s certainly worth noting that Matthews has facilitated William Nylander’s career year — he’s on pace to shatter his career-bests in goals, assists and points with Matthews as his primary linemate. Nylander is often the primary driver of the line’s offense this year and it can often be credited to the space he’s afforded while defenders have to think about where Matthews is at all times.
There are two notable elements that Matthews has added to his own game: he’s not forcing his own shot as often this year and while the Maple Leafs don’t care if the game’s best shooter is lobbing pucks at volume toward the net, it’s clear that he’s accounting for shot quality. Matthews has also made a concerted effort of shooting with the purpose of drawing rebounds — he’s already created a career-best 28 rebounds at 5-on-5 — with Bunting and Nylander as the beneficiaries.
If Matthews isn’t beating goalies cleanly, he’s still creating offense for his linemates, while his sheer presence gives Nylander — or Marner, when called upon — more space to operate in the offensive zone. In basketball, there’s the concept of the gravity effect that Steph Curry creates for his teammates, the idea that defenders focus heavily on Golden State’s superstar point guard, which creates space for other shooters on the floor. The same principle is being applied to Matthews and his linemates this year.
Where Matthews has taken a step back
Goal scoring, release
Matthews isn’t lighting the lamp like he used to, and he’s shooting at a career-worst 11 percent clip. If you’re viewing his season optimistically, you have to figure Matthews is bound for some positive regression any day now. And though Matthews is one of the league’s most aggressive offensive players, he’s been a lot more hesitant with his whip-like release this season. He’s been a lot more cautious about picking his spots and he hasn’t handled the puck with the same fluency he operated with in 2021-22.
Matthews still boasts a cannon of a shot and his wrister is one of the league’s best weapons. This season, Matthews has often waited until he has a clear shooting lane to get his shot off and he can still do this in the blink of an eye, as evidenced against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 19.
A dipsy doodle will do 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/JC1Gxbq1Fv
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 20, 2023
Perhaps what’s most interesting about Matthews’ decrease in production is how he’s changed up his shot profile. With 236 shots tracked by NHL.com this year, Matthews has used his wrist shot 51.6 percent of the time (122 shots), while using his snap shot for 13.5 percent of his shots (32 shots). During his Hart campaign, Matthews used his wrist shot 55 percent of the time (176 shots) and that may be somewhat instructive going forward.
It could be a function of injury but Matthews is still creating at an elite level. If he finds renewed confidence in his wrist shot, there’s no telling what his ceiling could be for this year’s Maple Leafs. It’s also worth noting Matthews has shown he’s still an elite goal scorer when paired with Marner, and a Marner-Matthews-Nylander line is Keefe’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency combo.
Matthews remains an elite shot creator, but he simply hasn’t been as good as last year. He ranks fifth in individual expected goals and 10th in shots at 5-on-5 — the former is a cumulative metric that takes shot location into account. Toronto still controls 56.7 percent of the expected goals and 53.5 percent of the shots at 5-on-5 when Matthews is on the ice, meaning he’s been elite in every regard. But the stats pale in comparison to his 2022 numbers.
If you’re still skeptical about Matthews’ impact, consider that The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s most recent model projects him to be worth five wins above replacement — equivalent to an MVP season in a world where Connor McDavid doesn’t exist. This may feel a lot more pronounced during the rigours of the playoffs.
Matthews’ slight decline in the faceoff circle hasn’t been as detrimental to the team’s fortunes as imagined. John Tavares (58.4 percent) Ryan O’Reilly (56 percent), Noel Acciari (53.58 percent) and David Kampf (52.29 percent) all provide the Maple Leafs with an abundance of options at the dot. If the Maple Leafs are looking to win a faceoff in a critical scenario, they can turn to Tavares or O’Reilly, while using Matthews as a dangerous scoring threat, hovering at the top of the circle or on the wing to directly crash the net.
It’s only in a world where you’ve created stratospheric expectations that winning just under 53 percent of your faceoffs could be seen as a failure. Matthews has regressed slightly but he’s still trusted as one of the best faceoff men in the league, while creating meaningful offense for his linemates by virtue of his sheer presence.