When the NHL expanded in 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs were, at least in terms of Stanley Cup championships won, the league’s second-most-successful franchise. They had won the Stanley Cup 13 times, just one fewer than the Montreal Canadiens, their Quebecois rivals. But while the modern era of the NHL1 has been mostly good to the Canadiens — they’ve won the Stanley Cup 10 more times — it has been downright cruel to the Leafs: Their Stanley Cup tally remains stuck at 13, making the Leafs the only Original Six team that hasn’t lifted the Stanley Cup at least once in the NHL’s post-expansion age.
Torontonians hope all that will change this season. The Leafs have jumped out to a quick start, winning six of their first nine games while scoring the fourth-most goals per game. The player doing a lot of that scoring — and a principal reason for Toronto’s early success — is a kid from the American desert named Auston Matthews.
Of course, the California-born and Arizona-raised Matthews, who turned 21 last month, is a known entity at this point: In terms of point shares amassed in the first two seasons of a player’s career, he has been the best American since at least 1967-68, averaging 9.35 point shares per season. (Better than Mike Modano, better than Patrick Kane, better than Jeremy Roenick. You get the point.) If he can stay healthy and play into his late 30s, and keeping in mind that he hasn’t entered his prime yet, Matthews could finish with close to 200 point shares. This wouldn’t just qualify him as the greatest American player in NHL history; it would make him one of the best players in NHL history, period.
Matthews, who averaged nearly a point per game as a 19- and 20-year-old, is averaging 1.78 points through nine games this season. The goals (he has 10 already) are coming easily, and if he keeps this up, he may break Alex Ovechkin’s post-1994-95 lockout record for goals in October.
It’s unusual for an American to excel for a Canadian team. Many of the U.S. greats — Roenick, Modano and Kane, not to mention Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Pat LaFontaine — played the majority or the entirety of their careers stateside2. In fact, it’s unusual for Americans to play in the Great White North at all. Some of that has to do with the drafting habits of Canadian teams: Just 51 of the 1,240 first-round draft picks since expansion have been Americans selected by Canadian teams, only four of whom were Toronto draftees. Americans have accounted for just 11.9 percent of skater games played for Canadian teams since expansion and have just 10.6 percent of the goals scored by Canadian teams. By contrast, Americans have accounted for 17.1 percent of player games played for American teams, and they have 15.0 percent of the goals scored by American teams.
|Share by Americans|
And in terms of Canadian teams that employ Americans, the Leafs rank low by percentage.
|Share of Tm. Total by Americans|
Since expansion, Americans have accounted for just 10.2 percent of their skater games played. Only the Vancouver Canucks (8.8 percent) and Quebec Nordiques (4.4 percent)3have employed Americans at a lower rate. It’s strange, then, that they’ve hitched their wagon to a kid for whom pond hockey was a thing that only happened in Disney movies.
The move has paid off so far: If Matthews isn’t the best player in the world, he’s not far off. And if he delivers the Stanley Cup to long-suffering Leafs fans, nobody in Toronto will think twice about where their savior grew up.