Leafs Nation erupted on Saturday night, and for good reason. They won the draft lottery and will have the right to select first in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
It’s been a long while since they got a win this big. This one wasn’t on the ice, that’ll have to wait a little longer, but it was perhaps just as important. It means they get a bonafide difference maker and a potential franchise player to hopefully lead them out of the dark abyss that’s been their last 50 season and into the promised land.
The Pittsburgh model. The Chicago Model. The Tampa Bay model. The Los Angeles model. The Edmonton model… Okay scratch that last one, but you get the picture. Be really bad, collect high picks, draft elite players and you’ll have a contender very soon. The Leafs nailed step one, and they’ll be rewarded for their ineptitude in June.
Their reward? Auston Matthews, an uber talented center born in Scottsdale, Ariz., with franchise cornerstone potential. The Leafs haven’t exactly had one of those since Mats Sundin and it’s not exactly far-fetch’d to think Matthews’ ceiling is even higher than that. He’s got potential to be the kind of superstar talent the Leafs have sorely lacked for most of their existence.
Think of all the first overall picks over the last decade and you’ll get a quick idea of the kind of talent the Leafs could be adding here. 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. That’s a pretty good level to be at.
Those are obviously very high expectations, but they’re not exactly unwarranted. So what exactly should we expect from Matthews during his first few seasons in the NHL?
Let’s start with what he did in the year before his draft year in the U.S. National Team Development Program compared to some other elite American-born phenoms.
Matthews had 116 points in 60 games, good for almost two points-per-game and the single-season record for points, beating Patrick Kane’s 102 in 58 games. That speaks volumes about his offensive potential.
During his draft year, he went to the Swiss league where he dominated adult men as a teenager. Matthews had 46 points in 36 games for the ZSC Lions, good for 10th in league scoring and 2nd in points-per-game behind former NHLer Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Those are very good numbers for a teenager in a men’s league, but it’s hard to judge exactly how good because it’s a different hockey league than the average fan is used to. Luckily, some hockey analysts have taken it upon themselves to bridge the gap by creating something called NHL equivalencies, or NHLe for short.
According to Rob Vollman, NHLe was brought to hockey by Gabriel Desjardins and inspired by something similar in baseball created by Bill James back in 1985. It looks at players from different leagues all over the world and sees how they performed in the NHL compared to their former hockey league.
The translation rate from the Swiss league is 0.4, so Matthews 46 points in 36 games would be equal to 42 points in the NHL, a very high number for someone about to get drafted.
Knowing Matthews’ NHLe means we can take this analysis one step further using a website called The Projection Project. The website finds comparable players based on a prospect’s NHLe, size and birthday. That’s not to say the prospect plays just like them, it simply means he’s as big and scored as much in his draft year – two things that are very important in determining future NHL success. I’ll also add draft pedigree to the mix and omit anyone who’s still developing.
For Matthews those comparables are Eric Staal and John Tavares, two very good-to-elite centers. That’s a small sample to form a reasonable projection, so I added five more players to the mix. The first three are additional comparables that ignore birthdates: Bobby Ryan, Steven Stamkos, and Tyler Seguin. The next two are the two players Matthews surpassed in points at the USNTDP: Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel.
Based on these seven players, here’s what the Leafs can expect from Matthews in terms of points over his first five seasons.
Interestingly, his first year lines up almost exactly with his NHLe as the average of the seven is 43 points. After his rookie season should be where Matthews breaks-out into an elite scorer and hits the 70 point mark on his way to being a potential point-per-game player.
It should be noted that there’s some era effects here as Staal’s 100 point season came during the NHL’s highest scoring season over the last decade. Take that out, along with the almost extinct 100 point seasons that Stamkos put up and you get a more realistic trajectory: 44-64-72-77-74. In just two-to-three years, Matthews should already be an elite scorer in the NHL.
But of course, points aren’t everything. Last year war-on-ice built a model that measures a players worth in wins above a replacement level playe,r aka WAR. Using the same seven players, here’s what Matthews would contribute in WAR.
The trajectory is an interesting climb toward elite status. Matthews should start his first year worth one win, but from there he should add one more win of value each season until reaching the three-to-four win plateau. That number would put him in elite territory reserved for the best players in the game. Needless to say, if he performs that way for the Leafs, they’d be well on their way to contender status.
What’s important to note here is he won’t get there right away. Matthews likely won’t be an elite difference-maker the minute he hits NHL ice, but in time he’ll get there. Tavares and Stamkos weren’t there right away either, now look at them. Matthews is a potential superstar in the making, just not next season.
If he does reach superstar status, though, the Leafs will be in very good shape. As Moneypuck (who’s now employed by the Florida Panthers) explained last season, teams need superstars to contend. The key thread that intertwines all the most recent Cup winners is that they had a couple elite players in the three-to-four win range that carried them to glory. Considering the Pittsburgh/Chicago/Tampa Bay/Los Angeles model, that makes intuitive sense and it means the Leafs have got a very important building block on their hands in Matthews.
If Matthews can reach that level it would be huge for the Leafs’ hopeful ascent toward becoming an elite team. A franchise center is a big part of that climb and Matthews certainly has it in him to get there.
If he can perform as well as he’s projected to here, there might finally be light at the end of the Leafs’ dark tunnel. Not yet, but soon.