And now… The Conclusion:
First of all, thank you for your patience in staying for the ride for “Why Auston Matthews is a Better Player than Jack Eichel at This Stage of Their Respective NHL Careers: Parts I and II.” And now… the long-awaited conclusion as I present to you the National Hockey League (NHL) reasons to prove my “generational player/talent” formula of Matthews > Eichel = Matthews is the better/superior “generational player/talent” of the two phenoms.
A Second-To-None NHL Debut!
Auston Matthews made NHL history on 12 October 2016 by scoring an unprecedented 4 goals when he suited up for Toronto in the Maple Leafs’ season opener against the Ottawa Senators. Matthews scored at 8:21 and 14:18 in the first period as well as 1:25 and 19:57 in the second period—in the process, accounting for all of his team’s offence production for the night. In doing this, Matthews equalled two NHL records as he became the twelfth player chosen first overall to score in his first NHL game and only the fifth ever player in NHL history to record a hat trick in his NHL debut. He also set two new ones as he held the distinction of being the first ever top selection in an NHL Entry Draft to record a hat trick in his NHL debut and the first rookie to pot four goals in his NHL debut. While Jack Eichel managed to register a goal at 9:11 in the third period in his first NHL game on 8 October 2015, his performance pales by comparison to Matthews’, who received a wave of congratulations for his accomplishment from active NHL players such as Kris Letang, Roberto Luongo, and Tyler Seguin; retired NHL icons such as Daniel Brière (whom Matthews idolized growing up), Doug Gilmour, Teemu Selänne, NHL teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as celebrities such as Stephen Amell. Perhaps the biggest compliment of all came from the next face of the NHL, Connor McDavid, who had the following to say after the Edmonton Oilers’ practice on 15 October 2016, “as a rookie, it’s tough to come into the league unless you’re Auston Matthews. For us normal people, it’s hard.”
By all accounts, Eichel’s first NHL season was solid as he registered 24 goals and 32 assists for 56 points in 81 games for the Sabres. However, he did not win the 2015 NHL Rookie of the Year award as the honour went to Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin after he led all rookies in goals (30), assists (47), and points (77) in 80 games. Matthews, however, ultimately ended up with better numbers than Eichel. With 40 goals and 29 assists for a total of 69 points over 82 games in the Maple Leaf’s centennial season, Matthews put together the greatest season ever for a rookie in team history on route to breaking former captain Wendel Clark’s rookie goals record of 34 goals and Peter Ihnacak’s rookie points record of 66, both of which had stood for decades. In fact, to put Matthews’ milestone achievement into perspective, the Scottsdale, Arizona native’s total goal production this past NHL season eclipsed Sidney Crosby’s rookie mark of 39 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2005-2006 NHL season! Not too shabby considering that McDavid, whose rookie season was cut short due to injuries, was projected to have 29 goals and 58 assists for a total of 87 points had he played a full 82 game schedule. Using McDavid’s projected numbers as a baseline, we can see that Matthews’ on-pace numbers would be equal to 79.3 percent of McDavid’s projected output whereas Eichel’s rookie season production is only 64.4 percent of McDavid’s projected output. In other words, it seems that Matthews has outplayed Eichel when we compare both players’ first year numbers.
Best of the Best Among Rookies:
In case you missed the news in the hockey-mad Centre of the Universe known as Toronto, Matthews was named the NHL’s second star of the week on 17 October 2016, the NHL’s first star of the week ending 2 January 2017, as well as the NHL Rookie of the Week twice—once on 17 October 2016 and a second time on 28 November 2016. Somehow, Matthews then managed to top all that by being named the NHL’s rookie of the month for December 2016 after recording 8 goals and 4 assists for a total of 12 points in 12 games during the month. While Eichel was named the NHL Rookie of the Week three times in his first NHL season—once on 28 December 2015, a second time on 1 February 2016, and a third time on 14 March 2016—as well as the NHL’s third star of week for the week ending 31 January 2016, he was never named the NHL’s rookie of the month during the 2015 to 2016 NHL season. Fittingly, Matthews has been named a finalist (along with Columbus Blue Jackets Defensemen Zach Werenski and Winnipeg Jets Right Winger Patrik Laine) for the Calder Memorial Trophy. As the odds-on favour to win the Calder, it would mark the first time in fifty-one years that a Toronto Maple Leaf would win this major award (Brit Selby last took home the trophy way back in 1966).
Making Others Around Him Better:
One element that often gets overlooked, and what is perhaps most impressive about Matthews, is that throughout the season, Matthews has been playing on a line constructed entirely of rookies ( i.e. Zach Hyman, a staple on the left side and either William Nylander or Connor Brown on the right side). Matthews was entrusted to take over first-line centre duties in late December 2016, a move that would see him get matched up with top players on a nightly basis rather than playing protected minutes against lesser and perhaps inferior competition. Instead of shielding Matthews by slotting him alongside the best and seasoned forwards on the team so that Matthews can benefit from their elevated skill sets and have an easier time accumulating points (much like how Winnipeg placed Laine on the same unit as star left winger Nikolaj Ehlers and elite centre Mark Scheifele so that Laine the sniper can get set up for scoring chances), Babcock instead sees Matthews as the main energizer who can drive a line by himself. Matthews’ other noteworthy achievements in this memorial season seemed to confirm Babcock’s intuition. On the one hand, Matthews set a new Maple Leafs rookie record by firing 279 shots, which places him in the top five of the all-time NHL rookie record. The only other rookies to take more shots in their first season were Alexander Ovechkin with 425, Teemu Selänne with 387, Wayne Gretzky with 284, and Dale Hawerchuk with 339. Matthews also led the NHL in scoring 14 game-opening goals, which equalled Dave Andreychuk’s franchise record. Thus, it was not much of a surprise when Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, who coached his Ovechkin-captained team onto multiple Presidents’ Trophies, called Matthews a “generational player” four times when Trotz spoke glowingly of Matthews in front of the media on 4 April 2017:
“The Leafs have a generational player in Auston Matthews. He is just a generational player. I mean… He is big. He is deceptively fast. His ability to see and do things at a high rate of speed but I know in his mind, everything is slow. You know, he is just able to see everything in slow motion but he does it very quickly and to me, he is just a generational player. He will keep growing as a player and that is pretty dangerous for the rest of the league. Because eh, you look at the young talents in the league… McDavid, Auston, and people like that, Laine… I mean, those are… those are pretty, pretty eh, sort of generational players that we are starting to see. It is a good time to be a hockey fan. That is for sure.”
Why is that the case? Partly because a “generational player” does not need others to make them better. Rather, a “generational player” makes those around them better. In other words, Babcock is confident that Matthews does not need other great players to elevate his game because he is actually the one who can drive a line by himself. Indeed, if we want to get an idea of Matthews’ overall impact on the team, all we need to remind ourselves is that Toronto became just the second team in NHL history, after the 1981 Quebec Nordiques, to have three rookies (Matthews along with both Mitch Marner and William Nylander) who hit the 60-point plateau simultaneously.
Rumours are flying that the Blue and White brain trust is seriously considering naming Matthews as the next captain of the historic franchise. On TSN’s The Quiz, the panellists consisting of James Duthie, Dave Poulin, Jeff O’Neill, and Darren Dreger collectively predicted that the question is not if Matthews will wear the ‘C’ for the Toronto Maple Leafs but rather when. The clock is ticking as three potential dates were mentioned: 17 September 2018, which will be Matthews’ twenty-first birthday, 17 September 2017, which will be Matthews’ twentieth birthday or 9 June 2017, which would make Matthews the youngest captain in the history of the NHL. Regardless of the date, Matthews’ leadership qualities are clearly acknowledged by other observers. No such plan for Eichel is currently in place from the Buffalo Sabres.
In the Eyes of the Collectors:
One of the unofficial benchmarks that show the impact of a given player to the NHL is the interest displayed to the said player among sports memorabilia collectors. To this end, the market prices of a player’s rookie cards are good reflections of their places in the NHL. Sure, part of it is hype and part of it is a popularity contest, yet both of these variables are derivatives of the degree to which a player makes his mark in the NHL. The more the player can take the league by storm, the more valuable his rookie cards will be. A quick glance of the ungraded Upper Deck Young Guns rookie cards of both Eichel and Matthews effectively tell us that the latter is the more superior “generational player” than the former as Eichel’s card ranges between $40 dollars to $60 on eBay while Matthews’ card command between $205 to upwards of $240.
So there you have it folks, I think the facts speak for themselves as to who is the better “generational player” at this point in time between Eichel and Matthews. Oh, by the way, speaking of prodigy, Matthews’s 116 points with the United States of America National Team Development Program’s Under-18 squad in the 2014 to 2015 season broke the old mark of 102 points previously set by Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane in the 2005 to 2006 season. It also eradicated Eichel’s mark of 87 points from the 2013 to 2014 season. Finally, for what it is worth and fair or not, Matthews was seen as the crown jewel of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft while Eichel was looked upon as the ultimate consolation price for the team that lost McDavid in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Really, do we need any more exhibits to make a convincing case for Matthews in the court of law… eh I mean on and off the ice? I really do not think so. It appears that Maple Leaf head coach Mike Babcock was not joking when he predicted that Matthews would be a “dominant centre” by Christmas time 2016… Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like Babcock is dead on with his assessment as Aust[o]n [Powers] has arrived in T.O.!