TORONTO – Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews has ascended to a new level of superstardom this season, scoring an NHL-high 58 goals in 68 outings.
Matthews, who was held pointless in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, recently became the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 to score 50 goals over a 50-game stretch. Matthews is on pace to score 66 times this season, a number that hasn’t been reached since Lemieux scored 69 goals 26 years ago.
Since 2005-06, the start of the salary cap era, only two players – Alex Ovechkin (65 in 2007-08) and Steven Stamkos (60 in 2011-12) – have scored 60 or more goals in a season.
If Matthews can hit 70 goals, he would become the first player to reach the prestigious number since ex-Sabres star Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne each scored 76 times in 1992-93.
Don’t think Matthews can do it? The ultra-talented American had scored 21 goals in his last 13 games entering Tuesday’s contest at Scotiabank Arena.
Now get this: Sabres coach Don Granato, who coached Matthews in junior at the U.S. National Team Development Program, thinks the 24-year-old can get better.
“The scary thing is I see signs that he can do more,” Granato said prior to Tuesday’s game. “… As I said here before he scored the number of goals he scored, had a lot of questions of, ‘Does this surprise you or that surprise you?’ Nothing surprises me. His talent is still untapped.”
Granato said he saw signs of future stardom – “The internal drive, the athleticism,” he said – in Matthews as a teenager. The biggest harbinger, however, was the dominance he showcased.
“There’s not many players where the peer group, when he would touch a puck, I would nudge our assistant coaches when we first saw it happening,” Granato said. “Our entire bench would start to lean forward to watch when he would touch a puck. So his entire peer group, and that doesn’t happen. Not very often. But that was just an indicator of what a special talent he is.”
Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said the offensive numbers posted this season “have been pretty staggering.”
NHL teams were averaging 3.12 goals a game this season entering Tuesday’s schedule, according to hockey-reference.com, the highest number since 1995-96 (3.14).
Three players – Connor McDavid, Jonathan Huberdeau and Leon Draisaitl – have already cracked the 100-point mark. Matthews has recorded 99 points.
“If you look around the league at the numbers, the offensive numbers have been pretty staggering,” Okposo said. “You have him doing what he’s doing, you have defensemen on pace for 100 points. Just a lot of different eye-popping statistics this year and I think none more impressive than how many goals (Matthews) has.”
An undisclosed injury sidelined Sabres center Cody Eakin on Tuesday for the second consecutive game. To replace Eakin, Granato moved Peyton Krebs from left wing to center between Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons.
Meanwhile, winger John Hayden played Tuesday after sitting out 14 straight games. Hayden hadn’t played since March 13.
Winger Anders Bjork, who returned to the lineup Sunday afternoon after a 17-game absence, skated in Tuesday’s pregame warm-up but did not play.
With rookie Owen Power making his NHL debut Tuesday, the Sabres needed to scratch three defensemen, so veterans Will Butcher, Colin Miller and Mark Pysyk sat out.