It’s no secret that the Maple Leafs have built their roster around high end offensive talent with players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander leading the charge. They are all having fantastic seasons but one player in particular has taken his game to a new level in the other end of the rink. On pace for one of the best offensive seasons in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ storied history, Auston Matthews is showing the ability and willingness to dominate in all three zones this season.
Matthews has made regular appearances on highlight reels all season and his name currently sits atop the league’s goal scoring list with Alex Ovechkin, but it’s the defensive part of his game that isn’t getting the attention it deserves. In fact, his commitment to playing strong defense has helped translate to even more offense than we’ve seen through his first three seasons.
Defensive ability has traditionally been much more difficult to quantify through statistics than offensive impact. It’s pretty simple to see who the best offensive players are on any given night, simply by watching a two minute highlight pack or taking a quick glance at the box score. Thankfully, the world of hockey statistics is growing and providing more insight than ever thanks to the work of some really bright, statistically inclined hockey minds. Thanks to shot tracking data, we have several models to account for the quality of shot opportunities generated and given up when specific players are on the ice. One such model is Micah Blake McCurdy’s “Isolated Impact” which accounts for several factors to try and create a more holistic view of how individual players impact the game. For a more detailed breakdown of how to read these charts, check out Micah’s description here, but put simply: the higher your numbers are on offense and lower your numbers are on defense, the better.
Looking at Matthews’ isolated impact from year to year shows just how much his game has grown from one season to the next, but especially so in the defensive end this season. It’s also a bit wild to think what kind of offensive numbers he would have finished with last season, had he not missed 14 games, when you compare his offensive impact to this season in which he’s on pace for 59 goals and 100 points.
If you’ve been watching the Leafs closely this season, you know that these numbers back up what Matthews has been doing on the ice. He’s made a much more concerted effort tracking the play down low in his own zone, either creating a turnover or making himself available for an outlet to start a tighter and more effective breakout than we’ve seen from the stretch pass system of recent years. He’s also supporting the puck better in the offensive and neutral zones which has led to more opposition turnovers and opportunities for offense in transition, which often result in high danger scoring chances.
All the skills that make him a dominant offensive player also allow him to take control in the defensive end. He’s big and strong, and knows how to establish good body position which allows his elite hands and puck control to take over and strip pucks away from opponents all over the ice. He currently leads the entire NHL in takeaways at 5v5 with 58, just ahead of defensive stalwarts like Mark Stone and Ryan O’Reilly.
It’s widely accepted that players such as Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, and Ryan O’Reilly are the class of the league when we’re talking about two-way centers, having combined to win the last 8 Frank J. Selke awards handed out annually to the league’s best defensive forward. Comparing Matthews to some of the NHL’s best this season, it’s clear that he deserves more credit for how he’s impacting the game defensively.
While Matthews hasn’t yet reached the shutdown level of Bergeron or O’Reilly, his overall impact when you look at both his offensive and defensive numbers put him firmly in the upper echelon of two-way centers in the NHL (Sean Couturier is grossly under appreciated). He’s still just 22 years old and displaying the potential and year to year growth to one day be considered among the league’s best defensive centers, all while scoring at a historic rate.
Patrice Bergeron was 26 years old before he won his first Selke. Toews was 24 and Kopitar was 28 before they got their names on the award. Even Couturier and Barkov have 5 and 3 seasons, respectively, of experience over the young Maple Leafs star. Matthews is already established as an offensive force but his entire game is still developing, as evidenced by his significant growth as a defensive player this season and continued all-out assault on goaltenders across the league.
He may never reach the defensive heights of Bergeron or O’Reilly but he has all the tools to get there, and many more that none of the aforementioned players possess. While his offensive exploits will always grab headlines and show up on highlight reels, it’s time for him to start being recognized as one of the NHL’s dominant players in both ends of the rink. He’s making it clearer with each passing game that he’s evolving into one of the league’s brightest two-way stars.