Auston Matthews won't need Toronto bias to help win the Calder

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Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews had the best rookie season in the NHL, regardless of where he plays. (Getty Images)

There will be no conspiracy. No bias, no partiality, no slant.

Auston Matthews won’t require the local cognoscenti to plot against the other talented candidates in this exceptional rookie class to win the Calder Trophy. The star pivot with the Toronto Maple Leafs has clearly distinguished himself as the NHL’s “most proficient” freshman, and will capture the franchise’s first major individual award in 24 years. (And the most significant individual honour since Dave Keon lifted the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1967).

All on his own merit.

With two goals in Saturday’s essential 5-4 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, a win that saw the Maple Leafs briefly occupy the Atlantic Division’s second seed, Matthews added to his host of unlocked achievements existing across multiple record books.

He matched Peter Ihnacak for the Maple Leafs’ rookie record with his 66th point. And, when Mike Green scored with 45 seconds left to pull the Red Wings to within one, Matthews ended up being credited with his eighth game winner to equal Howie Meeker’s 70-year mark.

That goal, his 38th, saw Matthews gash the U.S. record book, too, as he earned a share of the most prolific goal scoring season by an American. Neal Broten’s mark endured despite the rush of American talent in the 1990’s – and more recently snipers Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Kane – until Matthews arrived 35 years after the fact.

Finally, and when expanding the search parameters to “NHL History,” Matthews moved to within one goal of Sidney Crosby for the second most scored by a rookie over the space of 22 years, while over the last centennial, he’s produced the seventh most goals all-time by a teenager.

Matthews can exceed Crosby, and move as high as fourth on the list of greatest teenage goal-scoring seasons, if his surge continues into the final week of the season.

Normally, these historical entry points across multiple standards would unfailingly warrant top-rookie honours. But the strength of this class dictates that comparisons remain direct.

Since Patrik Laine’s hat trick versus the Maple Leafs back in October – the Winnipeg Jets’ sniper’s stinging counterpunch to Matthews’ four-goal debut – the two have taken turns getting a nose out. Matthews’ eight goals in December immediately preceded his momentous two-goal effort outdoors on the Centennial Classic stage, while Laine became the first rookie in almost 25 years to record three hat tricks exactly one week before the Maple Leafs and Jets met for the second time in their final head-to-head clash this season.

At that time, Laine had an edge. He led Matthews in goals and points despite fewer opportunities after missing a series of games with a concussion, and the Jets were alive in the postseason chase, sitting just a single point out.

Winnipeg Jets, Patrik Laine, NHL
Patrik Laine looked to have the edge in the Calder Race before Matthews’ late-season surge. (Sanoma Corporation)

The two delivered high drama, yet again (invoking calls for an all-Canadian division), as Laine added to his scoring lead with a pair of goals before Matthews recorded a third assist on the eventual overtime winner, which secured the bonus point in the standings, of course, and a halve in the head-to-head matchup.

Those swings, though, ceased since that scintillating split. Matthews has 10 goals to Laine’s four over the last six weeks, while racking up 14 primary points to his rival’s five.

Now Matthews’ four-goal cushion is all that separates the rookies’ offensive lines.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Laine closes the gap, or we even see the lead switch hands again. But time is in short supply with just three games left on Winnipeg’s schedule, while the Maple Leafs play five.

What’s more likely is that Laine will preserve his slight points-per-game superiority, window dressing that will undoubtedly be used to accredit his tremendous campaign. But emphasizing this fractional disparity would be glossing over the fact that Matthews has provided a third, and, in many respects, the most dominant dimension of the Maple Leafs’ three-line attack with exclusively rookies at his sides.

The advent of this unit, and the comprehensive benefit it has hand on the entire system, is the reason the Maple Leafs are in the postseason earlier than most imagined.

Matt Murray and Zach Werenski have had similarly far-reaching impacts on team success for the Penguins and Blue Jackets, respectively. While Murray’s brilliance can’t be discounted, his somewhat contentious rookie status and 60-40 split in goal will sway voting, leaving Werenski to likely finish a disproportionate third, in part due to his small-market belonging.

And yet, while it would be unjust to determine Werenski’s value through production alone, most recent precedent suggests that his bid isn’t quite strong enough anyway. He’ll have fewer goals, but a similar overall offensive portfolio to the rookie season of Shayne Gostisbehere, who finished a distant second to Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks last season.

Panarin will have accumulated more points than Matthews while riding shotgun with the NHL’s reigning Hart Trophy winner last year, but his season simply pales in comparison.

We may never see another rookie class quite like this one. (Hell, we’ve neglected to even mention the names of two rookies on the verge of 60 points, as well as two others closing in on 50). But what fuelled this terrific subplot were the spectacles that became of the head-to-head matchups between the central figures who will finish 1-2 in the final vote.

Laine was at his very best those nights, displaying the sort of genius that was impossible for even the most partisan viewer to overlook.

With a superior season, though, Matthews will have prevented any urge.