Where does Auston Matthews’ historic goal-scoring season rank all time?

Where does Auston Matthews’ historic goal-scoring season rank all time?


With his 66th goal this season, Auston Matthews stands alone atop the goal-scoring leaderboard in the salary-cap era, surpassing Alex Ovechkin’s 65 in 2007-08. Only 20 seasons have seen a player score more goals.

Not every goal-scoring season is earned equally, though. Some players hit high marks because the scoring environment around them allowed them to. Others did a lot of their damage with the man advantage.

Though every epic goal-scoring season is special, some look a bit more impressive in context. Where does Matthews’ magnificence this season stand against the pantheon of other incredible goal-scoring seasons?

The easy answer to that is to go to Hockey Reference and find the adjusted scoring leaderboard. For those unfamiliar with era adjustments, Hockey Reference aims to put every season into the same context by adjusting for games played, roster size and goals per game. Some eras had more games, some eras had smaller rosters and some eras had more goals. All three variables can alter how impressive a player’s production is.

For example, Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record for goals in a season with 92 in 80 games during the 1981-82 season. That season there was a league-high 8.02 goals per game, 7.91 without Gretzky. Adjust that down to six goals per game, account for two fewer games and one fewer roster spot, and 92 goals turns into 68 adjusted goals.

That’s tied for seventh best in the modern era. It’s also one fewer than Matthews has this season.

(Dom Luszczyszyn / The Athletic)

For many, that’s generally where the analysis stops, which leaves Matthews just outside the top five and short of Ovechkin for cap-era dominance.

We can dive a bit deeper than that, though.

What era-adjusting doesn’t really account for is situational scoring. It’s a lot harder to score at even strength than on the power play, and some eras offered more opportunity on the power play too.

Here’s an example of that: This season there have been 4.7 even-strength goals per game, which is pretty close to the 4.74 even-strength goals per game scored in 1991-92. But power plays are also clicking at nearly 21 percent this season, way higher than the 19.2 percent average in 1991-92. And yet there were 0.8 more goals per game in 1991-92. The difference: two extra power-play opportunities per game compared to now. That means more power-play goals in general and more efficient scoring at even strength.

That’s accounted for to an extent by era-adjusting, but only insofar as saying 6.96 goals per game is 13 percent harder than 6.16 goals per game. It doesn’t account for power-play goals actually being a little easier to score now and the entire difference (and more) coming from the difficulty of scoring at even strength in this era.

With that in mind, we can tweak the era adjustment slightly, factoring in the difference that strength state has in each season and also the difference in power-play opportunities.

But we still need to go a step further and account for the degree of difficulty.

On average, a goal is 2.4 times easier to score on the power play, which means to find the most impressive scoring season, it might be worth putting a lot less weight on those goals. That doesn’t mean power-play goals have less value or are less special — a goal is a goal, and 60 goals is 60 goals. But the purpose of this exercise dictates putting more weight on goals that are more difficult to score: even-strength goals. Essentially, a 60-goal season with 45 even-strength goals should be held in slightly higher regard than a 60-goal season with 30 even-strength goals.

Putting that all together, Matthews ends up with 64.3 adjusted goals, good for the third-best scoring season in hockey’s modern era and surpassing Ovechkin’s 2007-08 season.

Interestingly, Matthews doesn’t end up as the best of the cap era, but he is really close. That honour goes to Steven Stamkos, who scored 48 of his 60 goals in 2011-12 at even strength in a much more difficult scoring environment. That gave Stamkos the distinction of the best even-strength scoring season and the only season better than the one Matthews is putting together now.

As for the overall best season, that still belongs to Brett Hull in 1990-91.

(Dom Luszczyszyn / The Athletic)

Whatever way the data is sliced, as long as it’s contextualized, the conclusion is clear: What Matthews is doing this season is a clear-cut top-10 goal-scoring season and arguably top five. He’s been legendary, especially when it comes to scoring at even strength, where only Stamkos has been more impressive.

This has been a special year for Matthews. Whether he hits 70 or not, it’s still one of the best scoring seasons ever.

— Data via Hockey Reference.

(Top photo of Auston Matthews celebrating his 66th goal: Rich Graessle / NHLI via Getty Images)


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