TAMPA — Those chants of “MVP! MVP!” at Scotiabank Arena are going to get louder at the Maple Leafs’ next home game.
Following a prolific 2021-22 regular season during which he hit the 60-goal milestone, Leafs centre Auston Matthews has been voted one of three finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy.
Matthews’ competition for the award given to the player adjudged most valuable to his team are centre Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and goaltender Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, as voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
“It feels good to be nominated and be acknowledged,” Matthews said on Thursday morning. “It’s not something I take lightly or take for granted.
“It’s a big honour. There is a lot of really amazing players in the league that had really great years. To be nominated as one of the three means a lot, but that’s not really my focus right now. This (success in the playoffs) is more important. This is what we play and work so hard in the off-season and during the season for.”
Two Leafs have won the Hart — Babe Pratt in 1944 and Ted Kennedy in 1955.
During the regular season, Matthews dominated, becoming the first NHL player in 10 years to score 60 goals, finishing with 60 in 73 games.
The 24-year-old, who was second in Hart voting last season, continued producing against Tampa Bay in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Through the first five games of the series, Matthews had seven points, tying him for the Leafs scoring lead with linemate Mitch Marner.
Not only did Matthews win the Rocket Richard Trophy for the second year in a row — he had five more goals than Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, who was second with 55 — his 106 points marked just the fifth time in Leafs history a player reached the 100-point milestone. Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler were the others to do it, both accomplishing the feat twice.
Matthews’ performance throughout the season helped the Leafs set franchise records in wins (54) and points (115).
“He has been such a significant contributor in so many areas for our team,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The goal-scoring has been so consistent, the five-on-five scoring (Matthews had an NHL-high 38 goals at five-on-five), he does that at a rate nobody has been able to keep up with.
“But then (there are) the intangibles of his game. He plays so many minutes for us, plays hard, plays well defensively, is physically engaged. It’s tremendous for him to have that honour, tremendous for the Leafs.
“The news comes at this point where there are other things on everybody’s mind, but it is certainly a well-deserved recognition.”
Matthews broke the Leafs’ goals record, previously held by Rick Vaive, who scored 54 in 1981-82.
When Matthews scored his 56th goal, he set an NHL record for most goals in a season by a player born in the United States.
Matthews’ 44 goals at even-strength in 2021-22 were the most by a wide margin, as he had eight more than Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets who was second with 36, and 10 more than Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and McDavid.
In averaging 0.82 goals a game, Matthews had the highest rate by any player in a minimum of 50 games since 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux averaged 0.99 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There’s a lot more to Matthews’ game than filling the opponents’ net, as Keefe mentioned. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Matthews has learned to use his strength to his advantage, and as a result, his defensive play is elite.
If there is anyone more effective in the NHL at taking the puck away from other players, he has not been revealed.
Matthews led NHL forwards with 92 takeaways, just one off the NHL leader, Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.
“I’ve always marvelled, even in his first couple years in the league —his ability to strip pucks is uncanny,” Leafs captain John Tavares said in April, referring to Matthews. “It’s a talent that you can’t really teach. The instincts to execute that and turn it into offence so quickly … he’s always reading the play from the right side of it defensively, then his ability to strip guys and use his body to take pucks away and transition to offence is pretty remarkable.”
In the faceoff circle, Matthews won 56.2% of his draws, good for 14th in the league.
Tampa coach Jon Cooper was asked which of the three finalists he would choose as his Hart winner. Cooper didn’t name names, but made it pretty clear who would get his vote.
“I can’t sit here and pick any of those guys,” Cooper said. “It’s hard in this league to score 60 goals.
“They’re all worthy candidates. I think any one of them can win. But scoring 60 is scoring 60. That’s pretty good.”
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