Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic‘s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.
Sid the Kid was still just that, a kid, when we first learned his name. He was the next one. He would change hockey.
Remember the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes?
John Tavares’ name started popping up in newspapers and on TV and radio years before he became a No. 1 pick, even before he was a teenager. The OHL decided that Tavares could be drafted as a 14-year-old. He was that special.
Connor McDavid was long seen as a generational talent on par with Crosby, so special that then-Buffalo GM Tim Murray was openly devastated when the Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery over the Sabers in 2015.
“I watch him too much and I think too much about him,” Murray told The New York Times earlier that spring. “I wish I could help myself.”
Crosby, Tavares, and McDavid were, arguably, the three most-hyped prospects of the last 20 years.
We knew they would be great long before they ever entered the NHL.
But Auston Matthews? Nobody told us this was coming.
Yes, he was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. But nobody truly prepared us for this exactly, a generational talent, a true unicorn, the greatest scorer since Alex Ovechkin — and maybe, one day, the greatest scorer ever.
Everyone remembers the four-goal debut, the first of its kind in NHL history. Less remarked upon but even more impressive is the fact that Matthews scored 40 goals that year, finishing as the runner-up to Crosby for the Rocket Richard Trophy as a 19-year-old.
Matthews, we were told beforehand, had a chance to become the kind of No. 1 center teams always dream of — just not someone who would score like Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux did to start their NHL careers.
“Franchise No. 1 centers with that much size, speed and skill don’t come along that often,” one NHL scout told TSN’s Bob McKenzie.
This was not McDavid, Tavares or Crosby. Matthews was not a slam dunk that way.
Eight of 10 scouts surveyed by TSN ahead of the 2016 draft had Matthews as their top prospect. Two opted for Patrik Laine.
TSN’s draft guru Craig Button gave Matthews the edge because he was a center. “An argument can be made that Laine may score more at the NHL level, but as a center, Matthews can impact the game in more ways,” Button wrote.
Then working for ESPN, The Athletic‘s own Corey Pronman topped his rankings with Laine, calling it a “coin flip” between him and Matthews.
“He could be one of the game’s best players and a centerpiece center for a decade,” Pronman wrote of Matthews at the time. “But I think Laine at the very least has a chance to be something special, and I’d almost always take a chance on special.”
It’s not that Matthews wasn’t projected to be special, just not this special. Not 60 goals in 73 games special. Not back-to-back Rocket Richard trophies special. Not the first Hart Trophy winner for the Leafs in 67 years special.
Not special like this:
First six NHL seasons (modern era)
One of us, writing for The Hockey News at the time, suggested that, “No, Matthews isn’t on the level of a Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, but he’s right there in the Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Taylor Hall tier in terms of draft-year skill.
“Matthews likely won’t be an elite difference-maker the minute he hits NHL ice, but in time he’ll get there.”
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan was understated when asked about Matthews following his team’s lottery win in 2016, although you sense now that he knew the goal-scoring might be special.
“He’s obviously a player that has played a leading role his whole life,” Shanahan said. “He’s got good size. He plays center. I feel like he can score from the perimeter but also has a knack for going to the net and banging some garbage goals home as well. So he’s definitely somebody that has earned the right to be where he is today.”
Six years later, Matthews’ impact has landed him here, at No. 64 Wed The Athletic‘s list of the best players of the post-expansion NHL.
So what happened? Why couldn’t we see this coming? We knew it with McDavid and Crosby and Tavares.
Why not Matthews?
Nobody said he would walk in the door and pot 40.
“I think the best way to say it (is), he didn’t really have the same type of attention,” Tavares observed.
The Leafs’ captain said he didn’t know all that much about Matthews until he came across what Matthews did in the Swiss League during his draft year.
And if there’s a likely explanation for the lack of “this-guy-is-going-to-change-the-league” hype, it’s the unusual route Matthews took to the NHL.
Not his childhood in the most unconventional of hockey markets in Arizona, but the unprecedented decision he made to play his draft year in Switzerland.
“When I saw some of his highlights and what his production was in Switzerland, I was like, ‘He’s gonna be an elite player in this league because (the Swiss League) is not an easy league,'” Tavares said. “He had a great season over there. That’s not easy.”
Tavares would know. During the 2012-13 season, when NHL players were locked out, Tavares played 28 games for Bern, producing 17 goals and 42 points.
Matthews, as an 18-year-old, popped 24 goals and stacked up 46 points in 36 games for Zurich. But it was Switzerland — far outside the general hockey consciousness.
Matthews wasn’t on TV night after night like McDavid, Tavares, and Crosby, all CHLers, were.
Current Maple Leafs teammate Denis Malgin played with Matthews in Zurich. He remembers Matthews’ arrival at training camp in the mountains. “After the first couple of practices, we saw that he was really good, really, really good,” Malgin said. “He was young and he was better than most of the guys.”
Looking back now, Pronman says it was clear Matthews would score a whole bunch of goals in the NHL, just not this many. As he recalled it, Laine had the more impressive shot.
Pronman gave Laine’s shot a grade of 75, using baseball’s 20-80 scale for measuring prospects. A 70 rating suggested a tool ranked among the very best. An 80 was generational.
Matthews’ shot landed at 65. His skating: 60. Puck skills: 70. Offensive IQ: 60. Defensive IQ: 55. Physical game: 55.
Clearly, he was going to be good, just not this good.
With hindsight, we can see that Matthews blew away expectations in every facet of the game. His wrist shot, we quickly realized, had no equals anywhere in the world. Matthews unleashed it like that. He would develop other destructive ways to score in time, including a huge one-timer on the power play.
His skating grew more powerful, too. And because of those tremendous puck skills, perhaps underrated instincts, and a 6-foot-3 frame, Matthews came to become one of the top defenders at his position, a puck thief on par with Mark Stone.
The big question now: Just how high can he climb?
Matthews is in the middle of his seventh season. He’s not even halfway through his career yet, so it’s obviously premature to speculate where he might land among the all-time greats when all is said and done. A lot can happen over the next 15 or so years that’s impossible to predict.
But when doing this kind of exercise with players still at the start of their journey, it’s also impossible not to wonder. Matthews is a special talent and with how he’s tracking so far, he’s on a path that can put him among some of the best players of all time. He may be 64th on this list now, but it’s unlikely that ranking stands the test of time with his current level of play. Matthews’ peak is already right there with some of the game’s all-time best.
The best way to exhibit that is with his goal-scoring ability, specifically comparing him with the greatest goal scorer of all time, Ovechkin.
Ovechkin is on a path to Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals, a once seemingly impossible feat that now feels like a matter of when not if. By current estimates, it’s a total he should reach by the end of his age-39 season, assuming he ages normally for a player in his late 30s. It may even be sooner given how Ovechkin has shown he does not in fact age normally.
By age 25, Ovechkin had 269 goals in 396 games. By age 25, Matthews had 259 goals in 407 games.
Matthews is way closer to Ovechkin than many people realize.
The last two seasons have really started to cement Matthews as one of the game’s all-time great scorers. Last season, he needed only 73 games to get to 60, a continuation of the torrid pace he was on the year before when he scored 41 goals in 52 games. In terms of per-game output, that’s a 65- and 67-goal pace in back-to-back seasons.
Ovechkin crossed a 60-goal pace only once in his career.
Matthews doing that in back-to-back seasons with a 55-goal pace before that means that the best estimation of his true talent right now is a 60-goal scorer over 82 games. It’s an absurd projection that highlights his consistent ability to put the puck in the net. Starting from that level and mapping out an age curve, we can compare what to expect from Matthews for the remainder of his career and compare that to Ovechkin’s.
The big thing for Matthews is finding a way to avoid subpar seasons. Ovechkin has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, but he still had three seasons where he failed to score at a 40-goal pace or higher. If Matthews can avoid that during his peak years, he can put himself in a good position to chase the same records Ovechkin is chasing.
On its face, that is an obviously bold proclamation for a player who is only 25, but Matthews is an arguably more prolific goal scorer than Ovechkin was at the same age. That’s a big deal and could mean tracking well with Ovechkin’s goal-scoring trajectory in each passing year.
The key will be how long he can keep it up. There are two things that have put Ovechkin within reach of the all-time goals record that are big question marks for Matthews: health and consistent longevity.
Throughout Ovechkin’s career, he has averaged 79 games per full season. Matthews is at 75. Over a 20-year career, that adds up to a full season lost, which alone could be the difference in how great Matthews’ legacy becomes.
Ovechkin’s longevity is a much bigger factor and it is pictured perfectly on the chart. With a standard age curve, Matthews stops being a true-talent 50-goal scorer at age 30. Ovechkin still somehow managed it at age 32, 33, 34 and 36 — with the jury still out for age 37. That’s simply unheard of with his gap above the standard age curve in his 30s showing exactly why Gretzky’s goal-scoring record is well within reach. He’s a machine, a perfect picture of consistency even at his advanced age (by hockey player standards).
At age 25, all we know is what Matthews is now and how most players tend to age. We can’t pencil him in to keep trucking in his 30s the same way Ovechkin has because that’s what made Ovechkin special.
Matthews would have to prove that on his own.
The effects of age, as well as potential durability issues, are exactly what keep Matthews away from a goal-scoring career that matches Ovechkin’s trajectory. If he can limit subpar seasons, there’s a reasonable chance Matthews reaches 400, 500, and 600 goals before Ovechkin did. But those next plateaus become much more challenging as the age curve suggests Matthews tapers off in a way Ovechkin didn’t.
We have no idea what the future holds, but for now, Matthews is on the Ovechkin track through his first six seasons and that’s a massive deal. He’s a generational goal scorer and being No. 64 on this list won’t do him justice very quickly.
But that’s also just one part of Matthews’ game. On top of scoring, he’s also a world-class two-way center among the most dominant players in the league. Even if his goal scoring doesn’t project as high as suggested here, there’s so much more to his game that makes him elite, which should still put him in rarified air when all is said and done.
Matthews has a very real chance to become one of the greatest players of all time. “One of the most under-hyped prospects of his generation” is a huge understatement.
(Top photo: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)