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Auston Matthews on pace for a historically great rookie season

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews celebrates with teammates after scoring against the Detroit Red Wings during the Centennial Classic at BMO Field.

Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

If he keeps this up Auston Matthews will finish with one of the best rookie seasons the NHL has ever seen.

The Toronto Maple Leafs 19-year-old sensation scored twice, including the overtime winner, in Sunday's Centennial Classic and now leads all first-year players with 20 goals and 32 points through 36 games.

The No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft is currently on pace for 46 goals, a mark reached by only six rookies in NHL history — Alex Ovechkin's 52 in 2005-06 the most recent in a mostly Hall-of-Fame group that includes Teemu Selanne (76), Mike Bossy (53), Wayne Gretzky (51) Joe Nieuwendyk (51) and Blair MacDonald, who was 26-years-old when he tallied 46 for Edmonton.

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Matthews accomplishing the feat might be more impressive.

Everyone on that group, save Gretzky, was older than Matthews as a rookie. And Matthews is performing in a era when the goalies are much bigger and better and scoring is down substantially.

When Selanne tallied 76 goals for the Winnipeg Jets, for example, teams were averaging 3.63 goals per-game with an average save percentage of .885. Today, the average is 2.73 goals per-game with an average save percentage of .914.

Matthews isn't making it rain on the power play as Ovechkin did with Washington, when power-play opportunities rose substantially amid rule changes following the 2004-05 lockout. The Russian winger scored 21 of his 52 goals with the man advantage, while adding 28 markers at even-strength.

Ovechkin finished with over 450 minutes of power-play time. Matthews is currently on pace for just over 220 with clubs averaging almost three fewer power plays per game.

Matthews is actually on track for the second-most prolific rookie scoring season at even-strength. He's on pace right now for 39 even-strength goals, which would trail only Selanne's 52. The Great One himself had 37.

Eric Lindros, also 19 for Philadelphia in the '92-93 season, scored 32 goals at even-strength in only 61 games, but did so in a league with more offence and power plays and substantially worse goaltending.

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For Matthews to reach these heights in this era at this age, again, makes his potential feats all the more striking.

"I don't think I'm surprised any more," Zach Hyman, Matthews' season-long linemate, said. "When you have a shot like he does and his skill-set, where he's able to get open, and when you take as many shots as he does — it's hard to get that many shots and he's able to generate tons of shots.

"With his shot, he's going to score a lot of goals."

Matthews, to that point, is again heading towards mostly uncharted waters in terms of the number of shots he's firing, currently averaging 3.7 per-game and on pace for more than 300. Only three rookies in NHL history have ever fired that many shots in a season: Ovechkin with a record 425, Selanne at 387, Dale Hawerchuk at 339 and Brian Leetch at 308.

Matthews doesn't seem to be overly lucky either. He's scoring on 15 per cent of his shots, a fairly sustainable number.

"He's got a skillset that allows him to do things that a lot of other people can't do," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "But on top of that he's got a good brain, he works hard and he's been playing with good teammates."

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Perhaps seeking to calm the growing hype, Leafs coach Mike Babcock noted that how a Matthews-led line struggled Sunday at points against Detroit's top unit. Henrik Zetterberg's line struck for three goals when Matthews was on the ice, including the game-tying marker from Anthony Mantha with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

Despite that, Matthews finished at almost 50 per cent puck possession.

The American centre is struggling in the faceoff circle, currently among the league's worst at 44.2 per cent, following a 41 per cent performance against the Wings.

Still, Babcock has begun matching Matthews against top lines in recent weeks, an uptick in his responsibility for the Leafs. Babcock protected Matthews in the early months this year by starting him in the offensive zone as much as possible, often against lesser lines and defensive pairings, but that's stopped of late.

Matthews had a 17-per-cent offensive zone start percentage against the Wings.

"I don't look after him at all anymore," Babcock said.

Beyond the potentially prolific NHL marks, Matthews is also consequently on track to shatter the Leafs rookie records for goals and points; Wendel Clark had 34 goals in '85-86, Peter Ihnacak had 66 points in '82-83.

"He's just going to get better," Babcock said. "He's going to get quicker through the neutral zone. He's going to play with more pace. He's going to understand more. He's just going to get better."

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