The mythical “power forward” is a player coveted by every NHL fan base – a huge guy that can hit, skate, score goals, and bull rush his way through opposing defenses. Vancouver has long clamored that the Canucks find this guy somewhere, and after scoring at a pace that would give him roughly 21 goals over an 82-game regular season in largely a 3rd line role, it looks like the Canucks have found their guy in Shawn Matthias.
We’ve seen that Matthias can skate, and we’ve seen that Matthias can play a power game, and he’s scored goals this season too. But when a career 10-goal guy becomes a 20-goal guy, we should be suspicious. Is Matthias really a burgeoning power winger just finding his stride? Or are we all being fooled by random variance and a sky-high shooting percentage? And just how much money does the pending UFA deserve? We investigate after the jump.
Despite largely being used as a depth forward, Shawn Matthias has traditionally been a very strong goal scorer at 5-on-5. In fact, since 2011, Matthias is one of the 50 most proficient 5-on-5 goal scorers in the NHL per 60 minutes of ice time who has played over 3,000 minutes. The company he’s keeping is pretty damn impressive too, as it includes guys like Taylor Hall, Zach Parise, Marian Hossa, Matt Duchene, and Thomas Vanek. The table is too big to embed here, so click this link to see the top-90 most efficient 5-on-5 goal scorers since 2011. Canucks players are highlighted in green, and values in the top or bottom 10% of their columns are highlighted in green or red (this allows you to separate high volume/low percentage guys from low volume/high percentage guys).
Matthias has also been on fire this season, scoring a career high 16 goals in a low scoring NHL while seeing fairly modest middle-6 ice time allotments. Looking at his rolling 41-game (half-season) goal scoring rate relative to what consensus elite scorers have done, it’s clear that the rate Matthias has been scoring goals at is pretty insane:
The problem for the Vancouver Canucks is that Shawn Matthias is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so Jim Benning and company have to determine how much they’re willing to pay him. If you’re a rational decision maker, you should be aiming to pay Matthias based on what you expect from him going forward, rather than what he’s done in the past.
This is largely intuitive. Matthias has been a more proficient goal scorer than average Steven Stamkos this season, but no one expects him to continue to be better than Steven Stamkos. As such, there’s obviously no way in hell Matthias is looking at a $7 million/year contract. But should Vancouver be willing to pay him Michael Ryder or Erik Cole money (around $4 million per year)? That depends on how much of this scoring you can expect him to maintain.
So we’ll explore the measurable factors that may have an impact on Matthias’ goal totals this season. First of all, we’ll look for an uptick in his individual shots or scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time on ice. We know that Matthias has generally been a poor possession player for his whole career, but has also taken strides this season when he’s been placed on LW.
If Matthias sees an uptick in possession, we’d expect his lines to be getting more offensive zone time, and Matthias to be able to generate more shots on goal or scoring chances in turn. This should, in theory, boost his goal totals. So is Matthias generating more chances to score? Let’s have a look:
Matthias’ shot rate has climbed this season to a career high, and his chance rate hasn’t been this strong since around 2010 with Florida (though shots and chances should follow each other more closely than they did during this time. I’m skeptical that Matthias’ early career chance rate isn’t a product of wonky scorekeeping). It seems probable that Matthias seeing time on the wing has helped him generate more individual offense, and since there’s a decent explanation for his shot rate increasing, we can infer that we should expect his shot rate to remain higher than it traditionally has been going forward.
At the same time, his shot and chance rates haven’t come close to doubling, while his goal scoring this season nearly has. Simply playing the wing and seeing an uptick in what we consider more sustainable abilities doesn’t account for Matthias having 16 goals this season, so we have to look elsewhere.
Since goal scoring can be expressed as a function of shot volume and shooting percentage and we’ve already explored the first component, let’s look at Matthias’ rolling 41-game individual shooting percentage too. We’ll also try to account for any shooting percentage spikes or dips by looking at the percentage of Matthias’ shot attempts that are scoring chances. If more of Matthias’ shot attempts have been chances, we would expect his shooting percentage to see an explainable raise:
Unsurprisingly, Matthias’ shooting percentage is at an all-time high. A larger proportion of chances to attempts doesn’t appear to be driving this either, as the two lines don’t at all appear to be related to one another through Matthias’ career.
We know from the table we linked to earlier that Matthias has always been a good shot volume guy and a plus-level finisher as well, but this shooting percentage spike this season is well above his career norm. In fact, whenever Matthias has seen his shooting percentage spike like this, he’s seen it fall back down to earth soon after – in other words, regression toward the mean.
It’s seems likely that Matthias reaches 20 goals this season, but it would be a mistake to view him as a 20-goal scorer. His all-around game hasn’t warranted more ice time from his previous coaches, and he’s been a poor facilitator of offense for his teammates. This shows up in his assist rate and his on-ice goals for stats. If we look at the same list of guys we previously looked at (3000 minutes of 5-on-5 time on ice between 2011-12 and 2014-15), Matthias is a top-50 goal scorer, but his on-ice offense is in the bottom-50. The only other guy who’s been in a similar situation is David Clarkson, and, well, an NHL team recently made the decision to literally burn $25 million rather than have him on their roster.
If Matthias’ re-signs with Vancouver and his deployment remains fairly constant, we can’t expect him to score 20 goals again in a Canucks uniform unless he’s moved to the wing full-time, gets powerplay reps, and plays with a better play-driving centreman than Nick Bonino. It’s possible that Matthias scores more goals going forward, but he’s certainly going to score fewer goals per minute of ice time. Arguing that this season is a “new normal” for Matthias is essentially arguing that he’s a more proficient even strength goal scorer than Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry, and Rick Nash and we all know that’s insane.
Matthias is an excellent complimentary winger, but so is Chris Higgins and so is Jannik Hansen. Given the more complete games the latter two have demonstrated in contrast to Matthias’ better goal scoring, it doesn’t make sense to offer Matthias significantly more money that the other two much more maligned Canucks forwards. If he’s going to be looking for current Erik Cole money, that shouldn’t fly for Canucks management.
We should expect Matthias to regress and score less frequently going forward, but we should also expect Matthias to remain very good at doing what he does. And all Matthias does is score goals.