What We Learned: When can we start the Auston Matthews MVP conversation?

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/7109/" data-ylk="slk:Auston Matthews">Auston Matthews</a> has been playing at an MVP level this season. (Mark Blinch/Getty)
Auston Matthews has been playing at an MVP level this season. (Mark Blinch/Getty)

Not to draw too many conclusions from the first week and a half of the season, but you know that step everyone expected Auston Matthews to take?

Looks like he took it.

Five games into the season, he has exactly that many goals and three assists. This after the season he walked away with the Calder and finished 11th in MVP voting as a 19-year-old. And as far as that Hart voting goes, he probably has a right to feel a little hard done by.

This is a kid who led the league in individual expected goals per hour a year ago, finished fifth in primary points per 60 at 5-on-5 despite drawing the best opponents other teams had to offer, attempted the 10th-most shots per 60 in the league last season, scored 40 goals, got the Leafs into the playoffs and generally pounded on the competition almost every time he was on the ice. As a rookie teenager playing his first season of high-level North American hockey.

And it looks like he took a step.

It’s not just the show-stopping goals (he already has a nice highlight reel going this season) and it’s not just the fact the Leafs are both scoring and preventing goals at unbelievable clips. It’s that, once again, Matthews is at the center of one of the most dominant lines in the league, and it’s even more dominant than it was last season.

Last season the Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line had an expected-goals share of more than 55 percent at full strength, putting them seventh in the league behind such groups as Calgary’s 3M line, that dominant Cogliano-Kesler-Silfverberg trio, John Tavares and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s lines, and the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line. If you can be mentioned in the same breath as those groups, and you’re playing with Zach Hyman (who’s perfectly fine and got more crap than he probably deserved, but he’s certainly not on the level of a lot of these players), you’re doing things very, very right.

And they’re at it again this year, currently second in the league in xGF% among lines with at least 30 minutes together, and frankly it’s tough to see the Lehkonen-Plekanec-Hudon line keeping this up all year. Expected goals measures both shot volume and quality to distill things down to a single number, and the Matthews line is pushing 71 percent in this regard through five games. Again, really early, and there will be rough stretches for this team and this group as there is for everyone in the league regardless of how good they are. That’s what happens when you play 82.

So the number will undoubtedly come down, but by how much? Last year, when all these guys were rookies, that 55 percent or so xGF was already elite. And while you don’t expect them to clear 60 — only four lines have ever done that in more than 500 minutes together over a single season since the 2012 lockout, and two of them featured Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand — the fact is, whenever you’re pushing up against even 55, 56 percent, you’re pummeling the other team.

And here’s the scary part: The Matthews line was actually a little unlucky last year. Despite that huge number in xGF — which ranks 16th among all heavily used lines since 2012-13 — they actually got outscored by a goal at 5-on-5 last season. The reason why? They had a great save percentage behind them (.930) but only shot 5.8 percent themselves.

So here’s the question that naturally arises: Is there any way on earth their on-ice shooting percentage remains that low all year? The answer almost has to be a firm “no,” not only because it’s low for anyone in the league, but because it’s insanely low given that Matthews personally had a 14.3 percent accuracy rate in all situations last year. And remember, this is after Matthews scored more goals at 5-on-5 than anyone in the league last season.

The issue, then, is that Nylander and Hyman took a combined 272 shots at full strength last season and only scored 17 goals; crunch those numbers and you come up with a shooting percentage of 6.25. Say what you want about either of those guys, but no forward in the league has a talent level that low, period. (Though this does explain why Matthews only had 29 assists last season.)

So now flip the calendar to this year, and the Leafs are currently outscoring opponents 7-1 when the Matthews line is on the ice. Obviously the goals against is going to go up, and the goal-scoring will slow down a bit (Hyman is now shooting 20 percent), but Matthews looks a little more assertive this time around in shooting the puck himself, and you can see the skill level at which he’s playing on any highlights package of a Leafs game this year. He has a point in all five, and at least one goal in four. He’s omnipresent when he’s on the ice and just picking out corners in OT, which likely won’t last (at least not at that rate). But hey, it’s two extra points for the team and two extra goals for the kid.

There are lots of guys off to hot starts right now, of course. Alex Ovechkin already has nine damn goals. Three of the league’s top five scorers are defensemen. Things can get weird at this time of year.

But when you look at everything — aging curves, what Matthews did as a rookie, the fact that he has a great coach who’s going to put him in a position to succeed, continuity of linemates, the fact that he was a little unlucky last year, and so on — you have to come to the understanding that Matthews is as well-positioned as anyone to clear 100 points and get himself in the conversation for the Hart.

Okay, yes, Connor McDavid will have something to say about it, but if Matthews isn’t in the top-five at the end of the year, it would be a surprise.

Honestly, it’s not just about how good he looks or how much he’s scoring this year. It’s the fact that a player who was already this good was always likely to get better. And it looks like he might have gotten a whole hell of a lot better.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Don’t all look at once but what if … 65-year-old Francois Beauchemin has had an unsustainable start and actually is as bad now as he was in Colorado?

Arizona Coyotes: Not ideal for the Coyotes to still be winless at this point, but also: It’s the Coyotes.

Boston Bruins: Similar sentiment but reversed: Let’s not get all excited about crushing the Coyotes.

Buffalo Sabres: One thing a team like the Sabres definitely needed at this time of year, given how they’re playing, was a nice West Coast road swing. For sure.

Calgary Flames: Now this is a take.

Carolina Hurricanes: Y’know, Scott Darling is holding up his end of the bargain so far here, but this team has two goals in its last 125 minutes of hockey. They’re lucky to be 1-1-1.

Chicago Blackhawks: Congrats to these guys for actually scoring against Nashville at home. Big day.

Colorado Avalanche: Yes, this is the kind of result that feels right for this team.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Turns out this Panarin kid can play. Not just a product of playing with Patrick Kane. Weird!

Dallas Stars: The Stars only have four 5-on-5 goals this season. That’s fun.

Detroit Red Wings: This is absolutely the best team in the league this year. For sure. I hope I get to write updates forever about how sustainable Jimmy Howard’s .950 save percentage is.

Edmonton Oilers: Uh oh, folks. Uh oh.

Florida Panthers: If you came from the future and told me this is a team that loses narrowly a lot all season, I would believe you.

Los Angeles Kings: John Stevens is a genius. Gotta admit that!

Minnesota Wild: We’re less than two weeks into the season and already Bruce Boudreau is busting out the word “embarrassing” in pressers. What a year this will be.

Montreal Canadiens: And jeez, the Canadiens are already talking about “moral victories aren’t good enough.” Buddy, it’s Oct. 16. Take it easy for like a second.

Nashville Predators: This is a weird angle for a story but okay.

New Jersey Devils: That Will Butcher signing is working out great. First rookie ever to have eight assists in his first five games. He played college hockey, FYI.

New York Islanders: Hey as long as you get 40 saves every night…

New York Rangers: We’re talking about firing a coach or making a trade, on Oct. 16, about a team that’s very clearly trying to rebuild on the fly? Am I getting that right?

Ottawa Senators: Thomas Chabot might stick with the team but also he might not. Probably comes down to roster flexibility. Who knows!

Philadelphia Flyers: Hockey’s weird sometimes. What can I tell ya?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Here’s a big stat that shouldn’t be a surprise: Pittsburgh hasn’t lost to Florida in regulation in the last 10 games.

San Jose Sharks: Yes, this was always the concern for a one-line team, wasn’t it?

St. Louis Blues: The Blues lost their last two games after winning the first four, so of course they’re mad or something. I dunno.

Tampa Bay Lightning: To me, personally? This Kucherov kid can play.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Let’s just watch this one again:

Vancouver Canucks: People are shocked that a rebuilding team that charges a ton of money for tickets isn’t selling out. What goes on out there?

Vegas Golden Knights: Heyyyyyy, there ya go.

Washington Capitals: Yeah turns out this Niskanen guy is pretty important.

Winnipeg Jets: *stage whispering* Looks like Hellebuyck should have been the starter all along.

Play of the weekend

RIP Madison Bowey. Welcome to the bigs, bud.

Gold Star Award

They might get rid of the All-Star Game to do something in Europe instead. What a league.

Minus of the Weekend

The Golden Knights mascot? Not a fan!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “MR4” is all about the specificity.

TOR: JVR, Bozak, Carrick, 1st (top 14 protection)
MIN: Dumba, contracts/dumps

Signoff

My name is Zweig.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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