What’s the ceiling for Auston Matthews this season?
Five games into the 2018-19 NHL season and already the Toronto Maple Leafs look like everything they were advertised to be.
Specifically, they have been an offensive juggernaut that few -- if any -- teams in the NHL will be able to match up with in terms of offensive firepower when they are clicking on all cylinders.
After Thursday’s 5-3 win in Detroit they have already scored 25 goals on the season and have scored at least five in each of their past three games. And they are doing this without one of their top talents in restricted free agent William Nylander, who remains unsigned.
Leading the way has been the team’s newly created two-headed monster at center where Auston Matthews, the franchise cornerstone, and John Tavares, the summer’s big free agent score, have spent the first week of the league making a mockery out of opposing defenses.
As of Friday, the pair have combined to score 15 of the Maple Leafs’ 25 goals, while at least one of them has factored into the scoring (either scoring the goal or assisting on it) on 21 of the 25.
While Tavares has been great, Matthews is the one that is getting the most attention because he literally can not stop scoring goals. With two more on Thursday he is now up to nine goals on the season and has not only found the back of the net in every game, he has scored two goals in four of them.
This has done a couple of things.
First, it has sent what is already an over-the-top hyperbolic Toronto media into overdrive as Matthews’ name is now being thrown into the discussion with Connor McDavid as the league’s best player, and there is the inevitable talk about just how many goals he can score this season. If he continues on this pace he would score approximately 147 goals!
Second -- and this makes a lot of the current talk and hype pretty understandable -- it is put him in some pretty rare company.
Nine goals in five games is obviously a pretty big deal because, let’s face it, that’s a lot of damn goals no matter when it happens. But when you do it at the start of the season it really gets a lot of attention.
How great is this start? Since the start of the 1987-88 season Matthews is just the fourth different player to score at least nine goals in his team’s first five games, joining a list that includes Alex Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux, and, quite surprisingly, his current Toronto teammate ... Patrick Marleau.
Over that same stretch only one other player has scored at least eight goals in his team’s first five games (you will never guess the name) and only 12 others have scored at least seven.
Let’s take a look at those players and what they ended up finishing each season with.
Look at ... Mark Parrish?! ... with eight goals to open the 2001-02 season.
A few things to note: Marleau’s season was the lockout shortened 2012-13 year, and if you were to project his final numbers out over 82 games it would have put him on a 28-goal pace. John LeClair (2002-03) and Tomas Hertl (2013-14) also had injury shortened seasons that impacted their numbers. Hertl’s start in 2013-14 was the same year he broke Martin Biron and the New York Rangers with that between-the-legs goal as part of a four-goal game.
But what stands out most about this list is that all of these players inevitably slowed down dramatically, with the possible exceptions of Lemieux and Mogilny, as they were the only two on this list that ended up topping the 50-goal mark after their seasons.
Even Ovechkin -- for my money the greatest and most dominant goal-scorer in NHL history -- failed to hit the 50-goal mark last season after he opened the year with nine goals in his first five games.
The reason for this is simple: All of these stretches are incredible hot streaks where great players go on an unstoppable tear where everything goes in. Those stretches do not last long. Matthews, for example, has literally scored on half of his shots so far this season. You don’t need me to tell you why that is going to cool off.
Over the first two years of his career Matthews was a 15.8 percent shooter, which is still an obscenely high number for the NHL, and there is reason to believe he can sustain that number because he is that good. Let’s just say, hypothetically he spends the remainder of the season scoring on 15.8 of the shots he takes, as he has for his career. And let’s say he averages the same 3.25 shots per game that he has averaged for his career. Those numbers come out to another 39-40 goals, which would put him right in that 50-goal range. And if he manages to do that everyone in Toronto should be ecstatic because 50-goals is a nearly unreachable plateau in the NHL these days.
But that is probably his ceiling.
He is not a 50-in-50 player. He is probably not going to score 60 or more.
I do not point this out to rain on the parade or be some soul-less analytical person that screams UNSUSTAINABLE just because a player is on a hot streak.
Of course streaks like this are unsustainable. But that does not make them any less fun or impressive to watch. And if anything, these “unsustainable” bursts from players like Matthews are the exact thing that makes them great. I’ve beaten this drum so many times over the years that I even hate myself for saying it again, but great goal-scorers don’t score goals on a consistent basis. They score them in bunches like this. They go on streaks like this where everything goes in the net, and then it gets followed up by an eight-or nine-game stretch where they can’t buy a goal.
There is nothing wrong with that. Do not let anyone try to tell you there is something wrong with that.
Too many players (almost always top-tier players) get criticized for being too streaky or inconsistent. On the contrary, streakiness like this is good and “consistency,” at least as it relates to production, is vastly overrated. If you have a player that produces the same thing on a consistent it means they are not capable of reaching this type of level for any stretch of games.
And it is this type of stretch that makes players like Matthews (or Ovechkin, or Sidney Crosby, or Steven Stamkos, or any other top-tier superstar) so valuable.
When they go on a stretch like this it is not only incredibly fun and jaw-dropping to watch, it also carries a team to wins.
So, no. Auston Matthews is not going to keep scoring goals like this.
He does have a ceiling this season that isn’t the billion goal pace he is currently on.
That does not mean you should not enjoy it and appreciate it while it is happening. Because we all know once he hits that inevitable goal slump (and god forbid that slump happens in a playoff series) the same Toronto media that is going wild right now is going to rip him apart like a pack of ravenous wolves.
That won’t be as fun.
So let’s enjoy Auston Matthews now and watch to see what else he is capable of this season.