There’s nothing empty about Auston Matthews’ approach to goal scoring
The most recent goal in this magical Auston Matthews season stands out because of how different it looked from those that came before it.
Standing in the neutral zone, Matthews fired the puck over Seattle Kraken forward Yanni Gourde’s outstretched leg after goaltender Philipp Grubauer was pulled in Tuesday’s 6-4 Maple Leafs victory.
Not only did that complete his third hat trick of the season and give him a league-best 43rd goal, it also underscored Matthews unique level of dominance because it was akin to seeing a solar eclipse.
That was just the fifth empty-netter to come off his stick in a six-year career.
For the sake of comparison, Connor McDavid has five empty-netters this season. Heck, Alex Ovechkin has 21 since Matthews made his NHL debut in October 2016.
It’s an important piece of context to consider as the chorus of voices hailing him as the game’s best player continues to grow. That conversation is tied partly to the fact that Matthews makes strong impacts in all areas of the ice — including won puck battles, takeaways and faceoffs — but what truly sets him apart is how frequently he has continued to score since that unforgettable four-goal debut in Ottawa.
His gaudy numbers look even better when you factor in how few empty calories they include.
Entering play Wednesday, there were just three NHLers within 10 goals of the 41 Matthews had put past a goaltender this season: Chris Kreider (37), Leon Draisaitl (35) and Alex DeBrincat (31).
Zoom out a little further and you find that Matthews has scored at least 30 more than all but one across his NHL career, and he held a 237-220 lead in that category over Alex Ovechkin, who may yet go down as the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history.
Unless, perhaps, Matthews finds a way to match his longevity.
Framing the conversation in this manner is not meant to completely discredit empty-net goals. They usually seal victories and are scored by players trusted to perform in the most high-leverage situations. But the overwhelming majority of them come easier than those put past a goalie, and some are so stress-free a beer-leaguer could finish the job.
In this era of analytic-driven decision-making, where coaches now routinely pull a goalie with three minutes to play in regulation or more, it’s reasonable to expect top players to wind up with more empty-netters than the generation before them. Ovechkin, for example, will likely pass Wayne Gretzky for first on the empty-netter list — he’s currently trailing 56-47 — before he gets within view of No. 99’s all-time scoring mark.
Matthews is charting his own course largely without the benefit of freebies. While there’s never been any indication that he’s purposely avoided shooting for the empty cage, he did once playfully chide former teammate Zach Hyman for his penchant to score in that manner.
“They call him the Sidney Crosby of 6-on-5,” he joked of Hyman in March 2020.
The closest historic comparable for what Matthews is doing arguably comes from Brett Hull, who made no secret of his refusal to shoot at empty nets throughout much of his career. Hull scored 86 times in 1990-91 without the benefit of an empty-netter.
Matthews is now on pace for 63 in what can at best be a 79-game regular season, which would make him the first NHLer to topple the 60-goal milestone since Steven Stamkos in 2011-12.
Adjusted for era, it could go down as one of the better individual scoring seasons ever.
Stamkos recently said that he felt Matthews could “pretty easily” hit 60. He marvels at the way the Leafs centre keeps goaltenders guessing by varying the way he fires the puck.