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Behind The Numbers

Auston Matthews keeping pace with Alex Ovechkin

Scoring for Maple Leafs compares favorably to rookie season with Capitals

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

With 14 goals in the past 18 games, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews has 20 this season, second among NHL rookies, one behind Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine in four fewer games.

At Matthews' current pace (0.54 goals per game), he could establish himself as the best NHL rookie goal-scorer since Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06.

Since Teemu Selanne set the record with 76 goals in 84 games for the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93, Ovechkin is the only rookie to score at least 40, with 52 in 81 games. Matthews is on pace to score 44 in 82 games.

A closer look at their numbers reveals a few parallels that make it reasonable to compare Matthews and Ovechkin. They established their abilities to score prior to joining the NHL, base their success on high shot volumes, and are capable of scoring with any linemates.


Early bloomers

The first similarity is how each player established his goal-scoring credentials prior to his first NHL season.

In 2014-15, Matthews led the U.S. National Under-18 team with 20 goals in 24 games. His 24 goals in 36 games for Zurich SC in 2015-16 ranked fourth in Switzerland's National League A, first on a per-game basis (0.67).

Ovechkin led Dynamo Moscow with 13 goals in 53 games in the Russian Elite League in 2003-04. His 13 goals in 37 games in 2004-05 was on pace to reach 21 goals in 60 games, which would have tied teammate Pavel Rosa for second in the league to Dmitry Zatonsky, who scored 23 goals in 59 games for Avangard Omsk.

In the NHL, each player shoots from anywhere and everywhere, and generates scoring with notably high shot volumes. With 134 shots in 37 games, Matthews is on pace for 296, which would rank second among rookies to Ovechkin's 425 shots in 2005-06.

Their usage also has been similar. Just like Ovechkin in his rookie season, Matthews is deployed offensively but is not sheltered on a secondary line, nor has his scoring been boosted by playing with established offensive talents.

Video: DET@TOR: Matthews tallies with blistering snap shot

Matthews averages 15:00 minutes per game at even strength, first among Toronto forwards, and second among rookie forwards to Laine (15:21). Matthews centers the top line with Zach Hyman on one wing and either William Nylander or Connor Brown on the other, all rookies. Matthews has lined up for 171 faceoffs in the offensive zone and 117 in the defensive zone, for a Maple Leafs-high zone-start percentage of .594.

Zone-start information is not available for 2005-06, but Ovechkin was used in a comparable fashion in his rookie season. He led Washington forwards with an average of 14:05 per game at even strength, which ranked first among NHL rookie forwards. He played with Chris Clark and Dainius Zubrus, who had previous single-season NHL highs of 25 points and 43 points.

Ovechkin had the advantage of more time on the power play; at 6:43 minutes per game, he scored 21 of his 52 goals. That target is out of reach for Matthews, who averages 2:48 per game on the power play.

If special-teams scoring is set aside, Matthews is on pace for a stronger season than Ovechkin and the finest rookie season since Selanne.

With 17 even-strength goals in 37 games, Matthews was tied with Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead and was on pace to score 37 in 82 games. If Matthews succeeds, he will outscore Ovechkin (28) and every NHL rookie since Selanne set the record with 52 even-strength goals in 1992-93.


Bright future

Having established that the comparison to Ovechkin is valid, what could that mean for Matthews and the Maple Leafs?

Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year in 2005-06 and was named to the First All-Star Team for the first of five consecutive seasons. He has won the Maurice Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in goals six times and was awarded the Hart Trophy as League MVP three times.

Video: WSH@NJD: Ovechkin scores off of the backboard

The Capitals struggled in the standings for two seasons before qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2007-08 and winning the President's Trophy with 121 points in 2009-10.

That could be good news for the Maple Leafs, who have made the playoffs once since 2003-04 (in 2012-13) and were two points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. If Matthews' scoring continues at its current pace, he could win the Calder Trophy, help Toronto reach the playoffs, and maybe hit new heights by 2020.

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