When you’re drafted first overall and score four goals in your NHL debut, expectations surrounding your scoring output can change rather quickly.
Such is the plight of Auston Matthews, the 19-year old Toronto Maple Leafs rookie who is having an otherwise strong freshman season in the NHL but has gone goalless in his last seven games with just one assist to show for it. While he still sits tied for third in rookie scoring with 11 points in 13 games, the lack of goals in those seven games has become something of a talking point. And perhaps rightly so: he’s third in the NHL in average time on ice amongst rookies, he’s driving possession (54.07% 5-on- 5 Corsi For % adjusted for score, zone and venue. All stats via Corsica.hockey) and the scoring chances are there.
But the puck just isn’t finding the back of the net.
“Sometimes this puck bounces, doesn’t go your way and you get in these little slumps but I think the good thing is that we are creating opportunities,” Matthews said after Maple Leafs practice on Thursday. And he’s right: the line of William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Matthews rank fourth, fifth and sixth respectively amongst Toronto forwards in Scoring Chances For/60 minutes.
This coming on a team that leads the league in shots for per game. Matthews himself is a big contributor, leading the league in shots amongst rookies.
So even though he hasn’t lit the lamp since October 25th, the underlying stats seem to suggest that his time is coming. Anyone that watched the Toronto season opener knows that when it comes, it comes in a big way. For Matthews, the plan is to just stay on the same path he’s currently on.
“You’re getting these point blank chances so you just got to keep shooting, keep going and some of these things are bound to fall,” he said.
Matthews’s choice to take a non-traditional route in his draft year and choose the professional Swiss League over junior hockey may have helped acclimatize him to the pro game quicker. Nevertheless, as many NHL rookies soon discover, the league is a beast that can’t be tamed too easily. Slumps can occur quickly, forcing players to look inside and question the nature of their play. Matthews’s linemate Nylander, second in rookie scoring, has himself been held to just one point in the Leafs’ last four games.
There is still something so dynamic about the two of them together: Matthews has looked increasingly comfortable as of late setting up shop both in front of the net or in the slot. In recent games, he has looked to be in the right place at the right time, thanks in some part to Nylander’s ability to create incredible space with the puck.
Though coach Mike Babcock tinkered with his lines during the team’s blowout 7-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, pairing Matthews with fellow rookie dynamo Mitch Marner, it wouldn’t last. Nylander and Matthews were back together on a line at practice on Thursday.
“Everybody’s really comfortable with each other,” said Matthews.
“All four of our lines have played well together all year,” he adds. “Everybody trusts the fact that it’s just one game. We have to get past that, we have to get better.”
And while simply staying the course might breed frustration for a player that was brought into the Maple Leafs to be a game-changer, Babcock stressed Thursday that keeping the lines together was imperative.
In the case of Matthews, taking the easy way out wouldn’t necessarily be the best option for Matthews development long-term.
“We talk about that stuff,” Babcock said after being asked about how Matthews and Nylander are dealing with the frustration of not scoring. “I don’t know if it’s frustration at all. They are playing in the National Hockey League. I think in Matthews’s situation, it would be way easier to put him on the wing with a really good player and it would be way easier for him. But that’s not what we want to do with him and that’s not what he wants to do. It’s way harder to be a dominant center in the league at 19 than it is to be a winger, for sure.”
There is nothing to suggest that Matthews can’t find a return to form soon enough. He is likely to enjoy a lengthy pro career and more slumps like these are inevitable. For now, the poise and maturity in Matthews off-ice approach is evident. With a pair of games this weekend against the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, both of whom are in the bottom 10 in goals against per game in the NHL, that maturity could lead to results on the ice soon enough.
“You’re going to fall into these things,” said Matthews. “You’ve got to stay level headed. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Going into the season, I think it was going to happen. Everybody goes through them. It doesn’t matter if you’re Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby.”