The Battle of the Centres: Mats Sundin vs Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 23: Toronto Maple Leafs Center Auston Matthews (34) gives high fives after scoring the opening goal during the third period of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Game 6 Game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals on April 23, 2017, at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This is going to be the beginning of a series of comparisons between past and present NHL players – and who better to begin with than Mats Sundin vs Auston Matthews.

Mats Sundin vs Auston Matthews

Before reading this, who do you think will be the better player?

Mats Sundin was drafted first overall in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by the Quebec Nordiques. Sundin was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994 alongside Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner, and the tenth overall pick in the 1994 draft for Wendel Clarke, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson, and the twenty-second overall pick in the same draft. He was named team captain in 1997. Auston Matthews was drafted first overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Matthews made his NHL debut the following season and let’s just say he was making history immediately.

Point Totals

The first comparison will be the point totals each player made during their rookie campaigns. During Mats Sundin’s first season in the NHL he posted 59 points in 80 games, with 23 goals and 36 assists. He was second on the team in goals, assists, and points (behind Joe Sakic in all categories). Despite the great production, Mats was not in the top 50 for any category league-wide.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews posted 40 goals and 29 assists for a total of 69 points in his first season. He led the team in goals and points, was tied for seventh in assists, second in goals (behind only Sidney Crosby with 44 goals) and was tied for twentieth in points. Of course a more relevant comparison would be if Matthews played in Sundin’s time. He would have had 86 points, 50 goals, and 36 assists*. That would have been good enough for fifth in goals and tied for twenty-first in points, and would have been above a point per game.

Line-mates and TOI

Mats Sundin was playing primarily on the right wing with his center being either Joe Sakic or Stephane Morin. While the “time on ice” (TOI) category wasn’t established until the 1998-99 season, it would be safe to say that Sundin played around 17:00-18:30 on average during his rookie season. On the other hand, Auston Matthews played center for the “All Rookie” line with teammates Zach Hyman and William Nylander, and occasionally Connor Brown. Auston averaged an ice time of 17:38 over the course of the season, which would put him at around the same amount of ice time that Sundin supposedly played.

As mentioned, Matthews played with Zach Hyman and William Nylander for most of the season. Nylander had 22 goals and 39 assists for 61 points in 81 games and Hyman had 10 goals and 18 assists for 28 points. As a line they combined for 72 of the Leafs 251 goals (29%). Sundin played with Joe Sakic and Tony Hrkac for most of the season. Sakic had 48 goals and 61 assists for 109 points and Hrkac had 16 goals, 32 assists for 48 points. As a line they combined for 87 of the Nordiques 236 goals (37%).

While Sundin’s line did outperform Matthews’ line by 8%, it should be noted that the Nordiques finished in last place that season with a record of 16-50-14 for a total of 46 points. The Leafs in 2016-2017, meanwhile, finished in 14th with a record of 40-27-15 and that’s after finishing in last place the season before.

Records and Production Increase

Also, in Sundin’s rookie season he broke one NHL record by being the first European player to be drafted first overall. To compare, Matthews broke five records (two NHL records, three Leafs records). The first record was broken in his first NHL game when he was the first player to score four goals in his first NHL debut. He also broke Neal Broten’s record for most goals scored by an American born rookie in a season. The other records were fastest Maple Leafs player to score 25 goals (which was accomplished in 52 games), most points by a Leafs rookie (69), and most goals by a Leafs rookie (40).

In Sundin’s second NHL season he had 33 goals and 43 assists for 76 points in 80 games played. That’s an increase of 17 points (29% increase). If Matthews has the same increase as Sundin did then we could expect for Matthews to have 89 points in 2017-2018. While that does seem like it would be farfetched, just remember this is the same guy who had four goals in his first NHL game.

Who’s Better?

Overall, both players are seen as franchise centers and both had spectacular rookie campaigns. But Matthews outperformed Sundin in an era where scoring is at an all-time low. In the 1990-91 season, there was an average of 3.46 goals per game, while there was only an average of 2.77 goals per game in the 2016-17 season. This leads me to believe that Matthews will be a better player than Sundin over the course of his career.

*To get these totals I took the average amount of goals in the 1990-91 season (3.46) and divided it by the average amount of goals in the 2016-17 season (2.77) resulting in a factor of 1.25. I then took 1.25 and multiplied it by the 40 goals Matthews’ scored, arriving at an adjusted goal total of 50. From there I divided Matthews’ 40 goals by his 69 points to find the percentage of his points that are goals (0.579) and then divided the 50 goals by that factor to find his total points he would have scored in Sundin’s time resulting in a total of 86.35 (rounded to 86). To find his assists I subtracted his points by goals (86-50) which equaled 36.

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