How the threat of Auston Matthews makes his linemates better

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·MLB Writer
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Auston Matthews celebrates a goal. (Getty Images).
Toronto Maple Leafs rookie sensation Auston Matthews celebrates a goal. (Getty Images).

When Auston Matthews was named to the Atlantic Division All-Star Team on Tuesday, by far the most important reason was his ability to put the puck in the net. Only two players in the NHL have scored more than the Maple Leafs rookie – who is humming along at a 40-plus goal pace.

Matthews has the size and hands to make his presence felt in front of the net and the speed and stick handling to create space for his dangerous shot. That combination of skills has despondent goaltenders fishing pucks out of their nets with regularity.

However, for all his prolific lighting of lamps, the 19-year-old has failed to consistently fill up the assist column. As it stands there are 123 players with more assists than Matthews – seven of them on Toronto.

We tend to expect our number one centres to be playmakers first, and that hasn’t been his pattern so far. Whenever a player has significantly more goals than helpers the question begins to emerge about whether he is a player who helps make his teammates better or simply a finisher.

On Jan. 3 against the Washington Capitals, Matthews demonstrated how unlikely it is that he’s the latter with arguably the assist of the season:

Although Matthews has been a goal scorer first, it’s clear that he creates opportunities for his teammates, even if it doesn’t always show up on the traditional stat sheet.

For instance, during the Centennial Classic, teammate Connor Brown scored a goal that the centre technically had no hand in, but obviously helped create:

During this play the threat of Matthews causes the Red Wings defence to converge at the front of the net leaving Brown open for a spectacular opportunity. Were the roles reversed and Brown were in the middle, there is no chance Matthews would have been left unmarked. His mere presence changes the shape of the defence.

Matthews has also shown the ability to use his menacing shot to draw in defenders and feed skilled rookie William Nylander on the power play with mechanical consistency.

Below are three goals that look virtually identical to each other all based on the same premise. Matthews has a shot to be respected and he’s not afraid of an ambitious cross-ice pass:

1:

2:

3:

In recent weeks as Toronto’s lines have solidified, the Matthews effect has come into focus. While Zach Hyman has played with him all year, the difference in production between Brown and Nylander with and without the Calder Trophy favourite has been substantial.

Since the Hyman-Matthews-Brown line has become a fixture, the right-winger has become significantly more productive after offering relatively little offensively earlier in the season:

Line

Games

Goals

Assists

Shots

Without Matthews

32

4

4

38

With Matthews

17

5

5

28

The 22-year-old rookie has been especially handy of late with nine points in his last nine games alongside Matthews.

On the surface it would appear that Nylander hasn’t been as affected by whether he plays with the powerful centre:

Line

Games

Goals

Assists

Shots

Without Matthews

16

3

6

25

With Matthews

32

5

12

68

However, those numbers are misleading as five of the speedy Swede’s supposedly sans-Matthews points have come on the power play where has has been playing with the Scottsdale Ariz., product.

Matthews has a stat line that implies he’s a sniper whose game borders on selfishness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He clearly makes his linemates better and the reason his assist total doesn’t reflect that is a combination of a bad-luck shooting percentage for the skilled Nylander (8.6 percent) and a left winger in Hyman who’s a human puck retrieval system with questionable hands. If Brown continues to bury the puck as he has of late, his centreman will find his helper tally rise to expected levels.

The reason Matthews got picked first overall and tabbed as a franchise player was a balanced skill set with very few holes. In his first season in the NHL he is undoubtedly living up to those expectations.

That all-around offensive ability is what makes him a deserving of a ticket to All-Star Game, even if it’s the goals that got him there.