Each has a little more runway remaining on the season, but Tuesday's performances on one of the final meaningful nights of the regular season felt like the final meaningful edit on the Hart Trophy submissions for Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid.
Matthews wrapped up things rather tidily. He scored twice versus the Detroit Red Wings to become just the 21st player in NHL history — and the first in franchise history — to score 60 goals in a single season as the Maple Leafs clinched home-ice advantage and the second seed in the Atlantic Division.
There was a real feeling of the mission being accomplished. Matthews could exhale. His teammates —and general manager — were overjoyed.
In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, McDavid scored his 44th goal and added three assists in an incredible individual performance as the Edmonton Oilers clinched the second seed in their division themselves in a 5-1 victory over the Penguins. Both his 44 goals and 122 points are career highs. He is six points shy of matching Nikita Kucherov's high-water mark for the most points accumulated in a season over the last quarter century with two games to play.
So perhaps his resume isn't finished yet.
His goal was sensational, too.
— NHL (@NHL) April 27, 2022
In any other season, the performances from Matthews and McDavid would stand alone individually. Matthews is having a goal-scoring season that compares to the greatest ever in the salary-cap era. McDavid is having one of the single-most productive seasons this era has ever seen.
Maybe the two best hockey players on the planet are having career seasons simultaneously.
It's been wonderful to watch. It will be painful to choose between.
The case for Matthews
Matthews shouldn't have trouble convincing voters and fans who value goals more than assists. His 2.39 goals per hour is miles better than anything we have seen in the NHL over the last decade, but is also demonstrably higher than the other two scorers to reach 60 goals in the salary cap era. Alexander Ovechkin scored more than two goals per all situations hour in 2007-08, finishing several percentage points below at 2.06 goals/60, while Steven Stamkos failed to crack that mark in his 60-goal season in 2011-12, finishing at 1.99. Limited to 73 games so far, Matthews could conceivably wind up playing as many as 300 minutes less than Stamkos and nearly 400 less than Ovechkin. Simply put, Matthews has done more from a goal-scoring perspective than any other player in this current era.
What's also important to consider is that Matthews missed the start of the season after having offseason wrist surgery, meaning he had to use NHL minutes — and not training camp or a preseason — to get up to speed. If you eliminate October from the equation, Matthews' scoring rate ticks up to a ridiculous 2.56 goals per 60 minutes. He's also scored 59 goals and 104 points in 67 games since Nov. 1. While admittedly self-serving for this argument, it illustrates that Matthews has been, for the vast majority of the season, on par at minimum with any other offensive player. When comparing him to McDavid specifically over the last six months, Matthews has 22 more goals and two less points. He's also played in five fewer games.
Narrowing the parameters some more, Matthews became an "unofficial" member of the 50 in 50 club, scoring 51 times over a 50-game stretch through the meat of the season. He was the first player in over a quarter century, and the first since Mario Lemieux, to average one goal per game across a 50-outing sample. Toronto went 34-13-5 over that stretch, rising from sixth to third in the overall NHL standings.
Also when comparing the two, defensive contributions and play away from the puck would skew toward Matthews, who has become one of the best takeaway artists in the league, leading the NHL with 92 — 20 more than McDavid, who ranks seventh. The Selke Trophy conversation cooled, and justifiably so, but Matthews may be the choice if one needs to split hairs, even with McDavid improving his defensive game this season.
The case for McDavid
What makes McDavid special is the unrelenting and unqualified production. There's no need to draw from a specific sample; he's been the most productive player in the league since the puck dropped on the season. With a league-best 16 points in the month of October, McDavid built a 14-point lead over Matthews (and the rest of the league for that matter) that he would not relinquish. It will essentially be wire to wire again for a fourth Art Ross Trophy for the most prolific point producer in the game today.
McDavid's strongest leverage, however, is derived from the definition of the award: his value to the Oilers is immeasurable. It's always worth pondering where the team would be without him.
Since the switch from Dave Tippett to Jay Woodcroft, McDavid has racked up 61 points in 36 games and keyed the Oilers' midseason turnaround with a 24-9-3 record under the new head coach. His 1.69 points per game over that stretch has been the strongest force behind the Oilers rising from fifth to second, where they will finish in the Pacific Division standings. What has hurt McDavid before is now rushing to his aid: McDavid is having more than just a special individual season, he's driving real team success. So far he's recorded a point on 44 percent of Edmonton's goals compared to Matthews' 34.5 percent.
It's possible that McDavid reaches 125 points or even matches Kucherov's salary cap-era record with 128 with two games remaining on the schedule, but it's unlikely that either of those marks pushes McDavid over the edge. If he is to earn more votes than Matthews, it will be on the basis of clinching another Art Ross Trophy while setting career highs in goals, assists, points, shots, shot share, hits and faceoffs won.
It's been a career-best season for the consensus greatest hockey player on the planet. It's hard to imagine a world where that's not enough.
But the best sniper on the planet has made it so.
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