Why you shouldn’t be worried about Auston Matthews’ slump

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:23 am by Jeff Veillette

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Photo Credit: Charles Leclaire/USA TODAY SPORTS

Another game, another goalless effort. While his homeland talks about building walls, Auston Matthews has been claimed by media outlets in Toronto have hit a wall, now that his rate of production has slowed down considerably from that beautiful night on October 12th. That’s when he scored four goals in his first NHL game; since then, he has two goals and six assists in fourteen games; hardly mindblowing numbers, especially when you consider that even the bulk of those came before October 15th.

Some are confused. Some are alarmed, even starting to wonder if the Leafs went after the wrong guy. But he’ll be fine.

Slumps are a natural part of the game. They happen to every player, even the great ones. With the talent level in pro sports, you get a pretty good indication of who is better than who in the long run, but even the worst players in the top leagues aren’t exactly slouches. All it takes is for someone to be a little tired or a have an extra jolt of adrenaline to bring the see-saw a little closer on a given night, and those patterns can even hold for a few games. Good players can go cold as quickly as they go hot, and vice versa.

For heaven’s sake, Richard Panik was leading the league in points for a few days and Michael Grabner is a goal away from tying his total from last year already. Carey Price (who is admittedly a top dog rather than a bottom feeder) is 10-0 and has a save percentage that’s nearly 20 points above the second best in history.

But hey, how common is a goal scoring drought for a great young player anyway?

Best of the Best

Let’s pull the young out of the equation. Let’s grab the best goal scoring seasons in the salary cap era and see if anybody’s sticks went cold.

Rk Year Player Goals Longest Drought 5+ Droughts
1 2008 Alex Ovechkin 65 7 Games 1 (7)
2 2012 Steven Stamkos 60 5 Games 1 (5)
3 2006 Jonathan Cheechoo 56 8 Games 1 (8)
4 2009 Alex Ovechkin 56 9 Games 1 (9)
5 2006 Jaromir Jagr 54 5 Games 2 (5, 5)
6 2015 Alex Ovechkin 53 7 Games 1 (7)
7 2008 Ilya Kovalchuk 52 5 Games 1 (5)
8 2006 Ilya Kovalchuk 52 6 Games 2 (6, 6)
9 2007 Vincent Lecavalier 52 7 Games 1 (7)
10 2006 Alex Ovechkin 52 6 Games 3 (6, 5, 6)

Sure enough, everybody had a drought of at least five games. not too many that are nine games long like Matthews, but Ovechkin managed to do it and still walk away with 56 in 2009, the fourth best of this pocket-generation. Once you start going into the 30, 40 goal players, you see them more frequently; players don’t stop shooting, but sometimes they see fewer lanes, don’t have the gas to get so close to the net, or just face hot goalies. This isn’t exactly four-corner accuracy shooting at the skills competition; the mark of an elite player is creating opportunity, and the end result of it sorts itself out later.

First on the Board

For this one, I looked at the rookie seasons of the top forward selected in each draft since 2004.

Year Player Goals Longest Drought 5+ Droughts
2004 Alex Ovechkin 52 6 Games 3 (6, 5, 6)
2005 Sidney Crosby 39 7 Games 4 (7, 5, 5, 5)
2006 Jordan Staal* 29 10 Games 3 (5, 10, 7)
2007 Patrick Kane 21 14 Games 5 (6, 14, 9, 8, 6)
2008 Steven Stamkos 23 13 Games 5 (8, 13, 11, 6, 7)
2009 John Tavares 24 17 Games 5 (5, 6, 9, 17, 6)
2010 Taylor Hall 22 7 Games 4 (7, 7, 5, 6)
2011 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 18 12 Games 4 (5, 12, 5, 11)
2012 Nail Yakupov 17 16 Games 2 (9, 16)
2013 Nathan Mackinnon 24 10 Games 4 (7, 5, 10, 7)
2014 Sam Reinhart* 23 13 Games** 5 (13, 6, 10, 6, 8)
2015 Connor McDavid 16 7 Games 3 (5, 5, 7)

Note the following:

  • Jordan Staal and Sam Reinhart were second overall picks, behind Erik Johnson and Aaron Ekblad.
  • Reinhart was sent back to junior after nine goal-less games in his Draft+1. I included those nine games in the mix, hence the initial drought of 13.
  • Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid have the fewest droughts on this list, but Yakupov’s rookie year was the 2013 lockout season, and McDavid was injured for 34 games.

Even still, it’s clear that slumps are part of the game for these top picks. The only players to not go on a goal-less streak as long as Matthews in their first year were Ovechkin, Crosby, Hall, and McDavid; that’s three generational talents and an elite winger who still managed to go 5+ games without one on four occasions. It’s part of the process for every player; just because a certain Finn is shooting 24% in the prairies right now doesn’t mean that Matthews is irreparably broken.

Doing The Right Things

As I mentioned before, elite players need to create opportunities, so a drought in Matthews’ case is only really concerning if he isn’t putting in the time to try to reverse it. That’s pretty clearly not the case. At 5-on-5, Matthews currently sits seventh among NHL forwards in attempted shots per 60 minutes, first in the league in unblocked attempts, and third in rate of actual shots on goal. 

Yes, he’s scored just 2 of his last 52 on-net efforts, but I have a hard time believing that Auston left Ottawa forgetting how to shoot. If he were to continue that 3.8% conversion rate, he’d be doing so at under half of the league average shooting percentage, which makes no sense for a top-end player who generates opportunities in close-up areas. It’s a pattern that is unlikely to last, to say the least.

Besides putting his efforts towards the net, he remains near the top of Toronto’s charts in just about every possession metric, and is probably having his struggles doubled down on by the fact that William Nylander has also gone cold and that Zach Hyman, two goals in two games be damned, usually isn’t an offensive stalwart. Even through all this, his quick start before the drought means that he’s still hovering around a 65 pace, well above most people’s expectations for his rookie season and a very solid total for an NHL first line centre, let alone one that’s 19 years old.

In short, it’s a shame to see the stick of your superstar go a little cold. Heaven knows Toronto saw enough of that during Phil Kessel’s ups and downs, and it’s understandable that people are left feeling teased after his massive October. But there isn’t a huge need to overthink this; great players have bad stretches and as long as he keeps getting the puck on his stick and heading to the net, good things will start happening again.