Auston Matthews is putting himself in the Hart Trophy conversation

Feb 4 2020, 4:23 pm

Since Sheldon Keefe was hired in November as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, no player in the NHL has scored more than Auston Matthews’ 23 goals.

Monday night’s matchup against Florida saw another game, and another goal for Auston Matthews to total 37 on the season. Matthews has scored one or more times in 53 games this year, just slightly over half of his contests. It’s a conversion rate almost unrivalled league-wide, with only David Pastrnak having more goals (and more games with goals) than the Leafs’ marquee sniper.

While it might be tough to argue most years against Connor McDavid as the league’s most valuable player, here’s the case that as of now, Matthews deserves at least a nomination for the Hart Trophy when award season rolls around.

The Taylor Hall comparable

The most recent Hart Trophy winner who found himself a little further down the scoring race list was the then-New Jersey Devil Taylor Hall in 2017-18. If the Leafs find themselves in the postseason once again, it would be easy to create a similar narrative around Matthews, who currently sits first on the league in scoring but tied for tenth league wide.

Though he finished sixth in league scoring and 15 points off of winning the Art Ross, Hall was the key catalyst behind the Devils’ playoff berth on a team that had a host of other issues.

In Toronto, it’s been one issue after another. Injuries to ten different regular roster players on the Leafs have caused them to miss at least five games each, but Matthews has been in the lineup every single game this season.

Goaltending has also been a major issue in Toronto this season. Frederik Andersen has just  a single month (November) above a .905 save percentage, with Michael Hutchinson’s 4-8-1 record and .886 save percentage speaking for itself.

The actual wording of the Hart Trophy is for the “player judged most valuable to his team”, and it appeared that voters followed that explicitly when Hall was awarded that trophy. It’s hard to imagine anything more valuable than scoring 55+ goals in today’s NHL, which Matthews is currently on pace to do.

All-around game

While Matthews is known as a goal scorer, his all-around play has been at the peak of his career. Per Evolving-Hockey.com’s stats shown here, each segment of the bar graph on the left constitutes an average value (even strength offence/defence, power play, etc.). Matthews’ overall game has been right up there with the league’s best.

In terms of possession stats, Matthews has seen a career low in terms of shot attempts against rate, which has in turn seen a career best 5v5 Corsi rate at 55.14%. Also at 5v5, he’s been on the ice for 50 goals and just 34 against, a goals-for rate of 59.52%. Going up against the other team’s top competition most nights, that’s no easy feat.

If there is a knock on Matthews’ game, it would be that his assist totals aren’t quite in the highest echelon of players. He’s a shoot-first centre, and each of his four NHL seasons to date have seen his goal totals dwarf his helpers.

There’s no runaway winner

The Hart Trophy is a funny award in that there’s usually some sort of heroic narrative attached. With Nikita Kucherov last year, Tampa Bay was the clear best (regular season) team in the league and Kucherov’s offence was the best the NHL had seen in nearly a decade. With Carey Price’s win in 2014-15, he picked up 44 wins and a .933% save percentage on the second-best team in the league.

With Connor McDavid’s win in 2016-17, the story was he’d finally been able to pull the Edmonton Oilers into the playoffs, putting up an even 100 points along the way in just his second NHL season.

In every season since, McDavid has usually been the preseason Hart favourite and he’s on track for another great season. But he falls behind his own teammate in Leon Draisaitl in points this year, which fairly or not could complicate matters if things stay that way once the season comes to an end.

It’s hard to really point to anyone else in the scoring race ahead of Matthews and see any surprises. John Carlson at 62 points through 53 games could maybe make a case as the first defenceman to win the award since Chris Pronger in 2000, but seeing that a player like Erik Karlsson never finished higher than fifth in voting makes that seems unlikely.

With 29 games left in the season, Matthews has been trending upwards with 21 goals and 31 points in his last 23 games. Recency bias is part of human nature, and continuing that pace (or something even remotely close to it) could play a huge factor in swaying the PWHA.

Whether Matthews ends up getting his first Hart Trophy votes since the seven he received in his rookie season remains to be seen. He may remain a dark horse rather than a front runner. However, at age 22, it seems like Matthews may find his way into this conversation for years to come.