Toronto Rock forward Mark Matthews is playing like his MVP self again. It just might not seem like it yet.
After the 20-month layoff brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthews’s final two seasons in Saskatchewan left something to be desired. While the 2018MVP was still piling up the points and the assists, his overall game seemed to be lacking a certain punch. The most noticeable change to the towering forward’s game was his relative lack of scoring firepower. A four-time 40-goal scorer, Matthews found the back of the net just 55 total times in his final two seasons for the Rush.
What looked like the beginning of a regression from an aging star has turned out to be an aberration. Now playing in Toronto after an offseason blockbuster trade, the Matthews of old looks to have returned.
While it’s highly unlikely that Matthews flirts with the NLL single-season assist record again, it is entirely possible that he could be back on his way to a 40-goal season. Through two games, the behemoth of a lefty has buried seven goals, including four in his debut against Philadelphia on December 9th. The key to Matthews’s scoring is the way that his efficiency has improved in the small sample size available this year.
Over the last two seasons, Matthews underperformed his goal scoring expectations by 2.39 goals—the 132nd-ranked mark in the league. This year, Matthews has already outperformed his goal projections by 3.62 goals, which ranks him third in the NLL. Matthews is scoring at a greater rate, despite no change to his shooting volume. Over the last two seasons, Matthews averaged just under 7.5 shots on goal per game. This season, he’s averaging exactly 7.5 shots on goal per game. While the quantity of his shooting hasn’t changed, Matthews has been much more lethal when he does pull the trigger.
Mark Matthews has also been efficient in more aspects of the game other than just scoring. His Offensive Efficiency (eOE) has climbed to 3.51 this year from -6.19 a year ago. After ranking in the 41st percentile last season, Matthews now ranks in the 88th percentile—something that is incredibly impressive given Matthews’s high usage rate. He’s scoring efficiently and taking care of the ball as a facilitator. But don’t think that his efficient passing is a product of taking fewer chances. Matthews’s assist numbers don’t tell the whole story.
With just four assists, Matthews is well behind his career per-game pace. But even if his traditional assist numbers don’t suggest that Matthews is passing as well as ever, the LaxMetrics.com passing stats do.
Including this season, Matthews has averaged just over 6.5 Total First Order Chances per game over the last three years. This means that on average, Matthews creates 6.5 high-quality scoring chances for his teammates each game.
Where his assist numbers this year don’t measure up to his production the last two seasons, his chance creation is the same. This is because Matthews’s Rock teammates are converting those chances at an exceptionally low rate.
Per LaxMetrics.com, through two games, the Rock have converted just 7.7% of Matthews’s First Order Chances into goals—the league average First Order Conversion Rate over the last two-plus seasons is roughly 33%. This is significant because it means that we can expect to see a climb in Matthews’s assist numbers as the season goes on. Even if his First Order Conversion Rate doesn’t rise all the way to the league average, a regression to the mean in the range of 25%—still quite low relatively speaking—would account for a tripling of his current assist output. Simply put, if Matthews keeps passing the way that he has been, he is virtually guaranteed to see a significant spike in his assist rate as the season wears on.
While the Rock have averaged 12 goals per game over their first two contests, they also can expect to see an overall rise in their efficiency in the coming weeks. Toronto’s First Order Conversion Rate of 20.8% is the second-lowest in the NLL. Only Panther City (19.7%) has been worse at converting their high-quality chances into goals. But while they rank 14th in conversion rate, the Rock rank fourth in the number of high-quality chances they produce per game. Once again, it’s a simple game of regression to the mean. If the league average conversion rate is 33%, the Rock can expect their rate of 20.8% to climb somewhat significantly, even if it remains below average.
But let’s get back to Matthews.
If we understand that his passing metrics are highly likely to improve in the coming weeks and believe that he can maintain his efficiency as a scorer and passer, Matthews could become a legitimate MVP candidate by season’s end.
If he stays healthy and if his scoring stays consistent, Matthews will likely score between 40 and 50 goals. Should his production of high-quality chances remain steady as it has the last two years and his First Order Conversion Rate climb near the mean, Matthews can expect to finish the year with somewhere between 65 to 80 assists. Even on the conservative end of those projections, Matthews would be looking at a point total in the 105-115 range. If Toronto continues to look like the top-end team that preseason projections expected them to be, Matthews will be in the MVP discussion at the conclusion of the season.
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