Historic 4-Goal Debut the Latest Sign Auston Matthews Is a Future SuperstarOctober 13, 2016
A four-goal NHL debut is fantastic, but taken in isolation, it’s more a matter for trivia or curiosity than it is an indicator of future greatness. Taken in the context of what we already know about Auston Matthews, however, it becomes the latest sign that the Toronto Maple Leafs pivot is going to leave his mark on the game of hockey.
Matthews' four goals against the Ottawa Senators in the Maple Leafs' 5-4 loss Wednesday night was an NHL record, eclipsing a mark first set in 1943 by Alex Smart of the Montreal Canadiens. We don’t know how long Matthews will own that place in the record books, but given that Smart went over 70 years without being surpassed, it’s a distinction the 2016 No. 1 overall pick may well hold for the rest of his life.
Smart's career illustrates an interesting point, though: All by itself, a productive debut doesn’t mean a lot.
Smart played the only eight games of his NHL career with Montreal during World War II, with his first game’s production representing 60 percent of his career output. He spent most of his career in the Quebec Senior League and outside of the record had virtually no impact at hockey’s highest level.
Fabian Brunnstrom, who tied Smart’s record in 2008, is another example of the same truth. Brunnstrom was most famous as a media sensation in the summer preceding his debut, when he was an undrafted 23-year-old. A big year in Sweden had made him a free-agent target for several NHL teams. The three goals he scored on opening night, as well as the 17 he tallied as a rookie, were deceiving; he’d score just two more goals over the rest of his NHL career (two more seasons) before returning to Europe.
Real Cloutier and Derek Stepan, the other players who had hat tricks in their respective debuts (1979 and 2010, respectively), had better careers, but neither leaps to mind in a conversation about the all-time greats.
What distinguishes Cloutier and Stepan from Smart and Brunnstrom is the same thing that separates Matthews from the previous holders of the goal-scoring record: the rest of the story. Smart and Brunnstrom were overnight sensations but quickly returned to obscurity. Cloutier and Stepan were important prospects with lots of factors indicating they could play and had more staying power.
None of them had the profile of Matthews entering his first major league game.
Matthews took an atypical path to the NHL. While the overwhelming majority of North American players choose a path that leads either through major junior or college hockey, Matthews spent his draft year playing with and against men in Switzerland’s top league. At that level, he dominated immediately, as International Scouting Services noted in its preview of the 2016 draft (h/t SB Nation).
"Franchise center, Matthews is at the top of the draft class for a reason. Combining his great skating, soft hands, incredible skill and solid frame to dominate games … Easily the most talented player in the Swiss NLA. He adapted instantly to playing against men," it read.
ISS isn't kidding with the word "instantly," either. Matthews turned 18 on September 17, 2015, and played his first Swiss-A league game the next day. He scored his first goal in his first contest:
Just two weeks into Matthews' debut, Ryan Kennedy of the Hockey News could sum up his early work thusly:
Matthews, who is playing for the Zurich Lions of the NLA, Switzerland's most elite league, has three goals and five points in four games. He had to wait until he was officially 18 to play for the Lions, which meant missing the first four games of the season. So right now he's not the top scorer on ZSC in terms of gross output, but he is the best in terms of points per game.
Matthews entered his draft year as the front-runner to go first overall. He not only confirmed that status, but ran away from the rest of the field with a stellar 18-year-old campaign. This is a player who has already convincingly shown that he can play against men and that he doesn’t wilt in the spotlight. Both attributes will serve him well as the centerpiece of Toronto’s rebuild.
It’s also worth noting that four goals gives Matthews a big head start on the rest of the Calder Trophy field. Since 2005-06, 30 goals have been on the high end for an NHL Rookie of the Year; both Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog won with totals in the low 20s. In his first game, Matthews is already about 15 percent of the way to the goal total he’ll likely need to win the award.
Matthews' debut was exceptional, the kind of performance that will be talked about for at least the rest of the season. What makes it special, though, is that it isn't a one-off. It’s yet another in a long line of indicators, all of which tell us that Matthews is going to be something special indeed.
Statistical information courtesy Hockey-Reference.com.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.