Standing before reporters shortly after the Maple Leafs’ 7-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, Sheldon Keefe was asked if Auston Matthews now stands among the Toronto Maple Leafs’ franchise legends after scoring his 50th goal of the season.
“I think he was there long before that” the head coach replied.
Keefe might have a point there.
On home ice, Matthews became the first Maple Leaf to reach the 50-goal milestone since Dave Andreychuk did so in 1993-94 — three years before the author of this article was even born.
When the puck slid into the Jets’ empty net in front of a packed Scotiabank Arena, sealing a Leafs’ victory that pushed them further on their path to securing home-ice advantage in the playoffs, it stood a watershed moment, a truly special accomplishment for a franchise that has enjoyed so few in the 27 years in between.
In a big picture sense, what Matthews has done this season, when put into context, might stand as the single most impressive campaign from any player in the Maple Leafs’ century-plus history.
Andreychuk may have been the last to score 50 goals while donning the blue and white, but he didn’t wear it for long. When all was said and done, Andreychuk spent just 223 of his 1,639 career NHL games in Toronto, the fourth-shortest of his tenures with six different teams, and, of course, ultimately won his only Stanley Cup elsewhere in Tampa Bay.
Toronto’s love affair with its goal-scoring record holder burned bright, but brief.
Even Doug Gilmour, holder of the Leafs’ single-season mark for points with 127, didn’t stick around for as long as his legend status dictates, playing 393 games as a Maple Leaf after arriving, like Andreychuk, via trade from another organization.
For a team that boasts the history and longevity of the Maple Leafs, this franchise has a shocking lack of homegrown stars.
Matthews is their greatest one to date — a generational supernova capable of winning marquee awards on cruise control who was drafted and developed by Toronto from day one. No one else within the lengthy pages of the Leafs’ post-1967 record book can relate.
And when factoring in the pace, expectations, and quality of competition that Matthews has faced since entering the league, his status as a franchise figure was, like Keefe said, solidified well before Thursday night.
But Matthews doesn’t pay much attention to the legacy talk. Not at the moment, at least.
“I just try to stay present, try to do my thing,” Matthews replied when asked about the rarified air he now stands in.
“Maybe when I’m done playing I can think about that stuff. But right now, obviously, I have a job to do and it’s not finished yet. So, I just want to keep playing and stay focused on what needs to be focused on.”
Keefe, however, had no time for such modesty.
“It’s a great individual accomplishment for him, no doubt,” Keefe opined of his superstar.
“And as much as he will downplay it, as I expect given how he’s focused on other team-related things, it is important to acknowledge that it’s a pretty special thing. It’s been a long time since a Leaf has scored 50”
Matthews’ teammates, those who have been around him for years now, have been in awe of the 24-year-old’s singular drive to become one of the NHL’s premier offensive weapons. But it takes an outside perspective to appreciate some of the more muted aspects of his game, which defenseman Mark Giordano, whose tenure with the Maple Leafs has yet to reach the two-week mark at this point, has.
“I’ve been more impressed with how he plays defensively, since I’ve been here,” explained Giordano of Matthews on Thursday.
“It’s been unreal. The way he backchecks, plays in his own end. But when he gets those chances, it’s pretty cool. That moment was special”
Barring any unforeseen calamities, Matthews is as close to a lock as you can get to smashing the Leafs’ single-season goal record of 54, set by Rick Vaive in 1982 at the height of the NHL’s 80s offensive explosion. With 15 games to go, it’s more likely than not. And based on his near-goal-per-game pace, which doesn’t look destined to slow down anytime soon, Matthews even has a chance to crack 60, becoming the first player to reach that total since Steven Stamkos managed it in 2012.
These are eye-popping achievements when placed in the context of the NHL’s history, let alone that of the Leafs’. Matthews has yet to celebrate his 25th birthday and has already carved himself out a spot on Legend’s Row for whenever he hangs up the skates.
The Maple Leafs have never had a player like this before. And those around the team know it.