Matthews NHL goals leader for Maple Leafs in hard season

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It has been anything but that.

The center can become the first Toronto Maple Leafs player in 75 years and the first United States-born player in 24 years to lead the NHL in goals.

With four games remaining, the 23-year-old has scored an NHL-high 39 goals, nine more than Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, who has six games to go.

It’s a run that is even more remarkable considering Matthews has dealt with a nagging wrist injury that has caused him to change the way he shoots and even how he holds his stick.

“This has been a hard season, much harder than I think people realize,” said Brian Matthews, Auston’s father. “There were times that he was playing he could barely hold on to his stick. We tried all kinds of different knobs, and everything else.”

Matthews’ success this season is not only an indication of his ability to overcome adversity, but his commitment to trying to be the best player in the NHL, one that gained momentum with offseason tweaks to fitness and diet.

“It’s not so much that you got knocked down, it’s what are you going to do, how are you going to get off the mat, how are you going to respond?” Brian said. “And Auston, I think, has really taken that to heart.”

Rick Vaive, who holds the Maple Leafs record for goals in a season with 54 in 1981-82, said what’s most impressive with Matthews this season is how he has adapted his game to compensate for the injury.

“He’s found different ways to score, and that’s what the great goal-scorers do,” Vaive said. “I noticed when he first said the wrist was really bugging him earlier in the season, he changed his game to make up for it. He would go to the front of the net and pick up rebounds and stuff, which is not the normal way he scores goals. When he couldn’t rely on his amazing shot as much as he usually does, he found other avenues to do it.

“The thing is, you’ll never hear him say, ‘I would have scored more goals if I didn’t have this bad wrist.’ There are times when players are playing through injuries and they just have to suck it up and go do it. And we’ve obviously seen him do just that.”

No Maple Leafs player has led the NHL in goals since forward Gaye Stewart scored 37 in 1945-46. The last U.S.-born player to do it was Keith Tkachuk, who scored 52 for the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996-97.

Tkachuk said Matthews is showing a diversity in how he’s scoring goals.

“If you’re a player like him who has a great shot that is hindered by something like a wrist that isn’t 100 percent,” Tkachuk said, “you’re going to put yourself in a position where it’s a shorter distance to score from. And even playing hurt his shot is still better than most players not named Alex Ovechkin or David Pastrnak.

“He’s an elite player as he’s shown this year. With Ovechkin getting to the later stage of his career, Matthews is going to lead this league in goals for a lot of years.”

In his five NHL seasons, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft has scored 348 points (197 goals, 151 assists) in 330 games. He scored 80 points last season, including 47 goals, which was one fewer than Rocket Richard Trophy co-winners Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins. He has scored 63 points this season. 

He scored one goal in his first four games this season, then scored 10 goals in his next eight games. After failing to score in his next two games, he scored seven more in his next four games, and had 18 goals, five more than McDavid, entering the Maple Leafs’ game against the Calgary Flames on Feb. 24. 

After he was seen favoring his right wrist in that 2-1 victory against Calgary, he missed the next two games. Since returning March 3, he has scored 21 goals in 28 games, and after scoring in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, Matthews has 18 goals in his past 18 games. 

Matthews said he’s had to find different ways to be effective on offense and all over the ice. 

“I want to score, I want to produce and do those things,” Matthews said. “But I’ve just been trying to do the little things that help the team win and put the momentum back on our side. It’s more than just scoring goals.

“Obviously that’s what I’m here to do, that’s what I want to do, but just playing that full 200-foot game, competing night in, night out, that’s all I can look to myself to do.”

Video: TOR@MTL: Matthews intercepts puck, buries wrist shot

An example of Matthews’ grit and raw talent was on display April 28 in the first period of Toronto’s 4-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens. With Toronto leading 1-0, Matthews corralled a Nick Foligno pass that deflected off Montreal forward Nick Suzuki, batted the puck out of the air to himself, and swatted it into the net in the same motion.

“Just saw the puck and tried to get it on my stick,” he said. “It all just happened really fast.”

Toronto goalie Jack Campbell didn’t downplay the goal like Matthews, instead summing up the play in one word: “Wow.”

Thanks to plays like that, the Maple Leafs have clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth straight season and are on pace to win the seven-team Scotia North Division, holding an eight-point lead over the Oilers.

But for Matthews, regular-season accomplishments won’t matter if the Maple Leafs aren’t successful in the playoffs.

From the moment Toronto was eliminated in five games from the Stanley Cup Qualifiers by the Columbus Blue Jackets in August, Matthews had a bitter taste in his mouth. It was the fourth straight season the Maple Leafs failed to win a playoff round. His mandate only became stronger: to be better, no matter what it takes, in 2020-21.

Brian Matthews said his son’s mindset of never being satisfied reminds him of Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby.

“I look at a guy like Crosby,” Brian said. “He’s a beast. He works all the time to get better. You don’t see any drop-off for a guy that plays at the level. 

“Auston has that same type of drive. It’s always been a part of him and it always will be a part of him.”

It’s the type of drive that extends off the ice in nutrition and conditioning.

“Auston is always looking for ways to improve and was seeking more flexibility and durability as his minutes increased,” said his agent, Judd Moldaver. “Ian Mack has been a great fit in addressing that.”

Mack is a Chicago-based trainer who works with such NHL players as Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers. A refined workout regimen and diet resulted in Matthews losing 15 pounds, to get him down to his listed weight of 220 pounds and feeling much more elusive.

“He looks like he’s just really dialed in,” Mack said. “He’s on a mission for sure, so it’s pretty fun to watch.

“Sometimes people will get concerned when you say you want to lose some weight because they might lose some strength, but that just hasn’t been the case at all. He dropped 15 pounds or so, and he did it so he could become quicker, faster and can stay out there longer. That’s exactly what I’m seeing.”

Matthews is averaging an NHL career-high 21:44 of ice time per game in his fifth season, up almost a minute from his average of 20:58 last season. It’s second among Maple Leafs forwards to Mitchell Marner (22:26) and fifth among NHL forwards this season.

Mack said Matthews reaches out to him regularly to discuss the menu and workout schedule for the day ahead.

“We thought that he had an opportunity to be the MVP of the League if he was lighter, so it’s cool to see,” Mack said. “To see him doing that is awesome.”

Matthews was just as diligent to improve his game. In the offseason, he joined the likes of McDavid, Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba and Maple Leafs forward Alex Galchenyuk for skates organized by former NHL forward Shane Doan at a Phoenix-area rink in November.

Growing up in nearby Scottsdale, Matthews would attend Coyotes games with his grandfather. Doan, who scored 972 points (402 goals, 570 assists) in 1,540 games with the Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets from 1995-2017, quickly became his favorite player.

Almost two decades later, Doan has become a fan of Matthews, especially after what he saw during the workouts when players were discussing the possibility of the Maple Leafs forward scoring 50 goals in the upcoming season.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone shoot the puck like he does,” said Doan, who was later hired by the Coyotes as chief hockey development officer. “There’s a cold-bloodedness there, which I love.”

Doan said it was a lesson learned the hard way by former NHL goalie Peter Budaj during the workouts.

“He hit Budaj in the head with a one-timer, I’d say from 25 feet away,” Doan said. “I thought he might have killed him. And Auston was like: ‘Sorry, Petey.’ On the other hand, Auston said, ‘It was only at the net.’

“That cold-blooded desire to score every time you shoot it at the net like that, it translates.”

Matthews sought a way to test his streamlined physique once he got to Toronto after the Arizona workouts. He’d have to quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19 protocols in Ontario upon arriving in mid-December.

The solution was renting a home that had its own adjacent rink. Once one was located, Matthews invited Maple Leafs forward William Nylander, who’d been training in Sweden, to join him. Forward Joe Thornton, who signed with the Maple Leafs on Oct. 16, and defensemen Rasmus Sandin and minor league defenseman Mac Hollowell also moved in, and the five players had daily skates to hone their skills as they prepared for the season, which began in January.

“We had a blast,” Thornton said. “He’s such a special player. You could see even back then that he was on a mission.”

Add it all up, and it’s resulted in Matthews playing the best hockey of his NHL career.

“You started to see how elite he was last season, but he’s taken the next step this season no matter what obstacles he’s faced,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said.

“He’s been incredible.”

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