Smack in the middle of the Stanley Cup final, in a playoff season in which Connor McDavid and Cale Makar have dazzled, we stop to present the Hart Trophy to Auston Matthews.
The most valuable player in hockey who at this moment doesn’t seem like the most valuable player in hockey.
And, in this strange sporting juxtaposition, playoffs here, individual regular season trophies there, there’s a reason to celebrate and a reason to wonder. And, really, that is the story to date of Matthews and his forever wandering Toronto Maple Leafs.
Matthews need not apologize for winning the Hart or the Ted Lindsay vote of his fellow players in one of the most competitive individual seasons in hockey history. It was an incredible season of individual achievement all around the NHL. Six or seven players had Hart-like seasons. Matthews wound up with the votes of his fellow players and of the voting media. That is more than meaningful.
He was fully deserving of the awards and it adds to a rather impressive trophy case that includes the rookie of the year, two Rocket Richard trophies, and now a Hart and a Lindsay, the largest individual trophies in the sport.
Matthews entered the NHL in 2016 — and in six seasons, no one has scored more goals than him. Not Alex Ovechkin. Not Leon Draisaitl. Not McDavid.
He is the ultimate goal scorer and, individually, as a regular-season player, there isn’t much Matthews hasn’t accomplished. But this being playoff time, between games of the Stanley Cup final, he is handed his newest trophies, the first Hart for a Maple Leaf in most of our lives, the first Lindsay ever, and it is almost contradictory to applaud his regular season while sneering ever slightly at another run of playoff series left unfinished.
Nine times in the past five years Matthews’ Leafs have been in position to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Nine times the Leafs have lost a potential clinching game — twice against Tampa this year; three times against Montreal last year; once against Columbus in the bubble of 2020; three times against Boston in 2019 and 2018.
He has yet to pull a McDavid or a Nathan MacKinnon or a Makar, grabbing and willing his team to victory. He has yet to win something on his own other than awards.
In the nine clinching playoff games, Matthews, the unmatched goal scorer, has scored just twice. He also had three assists. He has scored at 18-goal pace in the nine clinching games and at 35-goal pace in all his post-season games combined. It isn’t unusual for any player to have his playoff statistics drop from regular-season numbers.
But Matthews’ drop has been rather monumental. He has scored at 52-goal pace, regular season, through six NHL campaigns. In any of those nine clinching games, the Leafs would have settled for a goal here, a goal there that didn’t happen to come.
He has had a rather miraculous time with the Leafs. They were last in the NHL when they made him the first pick in the 2016 draft. They haven’t missed the playoffs since. They went from 69 points in the standings to 95 points to 105 points in the first three years. In the past four years, with interrupted seasons, they had 115 points then averaged out at 112 and 95 before another 100-point season. That’s an average of 103 points per season in every year he has played for the Leafs. Those are terrific team numbers.
But Matthews’ Leafs have won just 16 playoff games, and lost 23. They’re a 67-point team in the playoffs, nowhere near the 100-point teams of their regular seasons. In three of the past four seasons, the Leafs have been eliminated by a team that went on to play for the Stanley Cup.
It is difficult to separate Matthews, the regular-season giant, the scoring machine, from Matthews, still learning to be a playoff killer. This was McDavid’s first dominant post-season run so there is hope that Matthews will follow suit. And had votes been taken after the playoffs instead of before them, there is little doubt McDavid would have won the Hart and the Lindsay. Normally, the awards are passed out after the playoffs end, voted on before they begin.
The NFL gives out its MVP the night before the Super Bowl. Baseball awards its winners without any real ceremony of any kind. The basketball awards, without a television show, are announced on off-days throughout the playoffs. This is a first for the NHL. Hopefully a last.
It’s not Matthews’ fault that McDavid played as though he was possessed against Los Angeles and Calgary before turning almost human against Colorado. It’s not Matthews’ fault that Draisaitl played on one leg and still managed 32 playoff points in 16 games. It’s not Matthews’ fault that Nikita Kucherov has 92 post-season points the past three seasons, 73 more than Matthews.
The Hart Trophy named Matthews the most valuable player in hockey. The Lindsay named him as the players’ choice. That is truth. But as awards host, Kenan Thompson, said as the show was going off television: “Glad to see the Leafs win something in June.”
That seemed to be the sentiment on a giant night for Auston Matthews, a night to celebrate and a night to already wonder about next April.