Tuesday, July 16, 2024

NHL Star Power Index: Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews is on fire, Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin finds fountain of youth

Welcome to the NHL Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players who are controlling substantial buzz around the league. When a player is included on this list it may not be a good thing — it means that they are capturing a large amount of the hockey world’s attention.

These players are in no particular order when it comes to the amount of buzz that they’re creating. We’ll revisit the Star Power Index every week throughout the regular season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs got an important piece of business out of the way prior to the start of the 2023-24 season when they signed Auston Matthews to a four-year, $53 million contract extension. With that out of the way, the Maple Leafs star center is playing out of his mind to begin the campaign.

Matthews recorded hat tricks in back-to-back games to begin the 2023-24 season last week. In doing so, Matthews became just the fifth player in NHL history to accomplish that feat in the first two games as he joined Alex Ovechkin (2017-18), Cy Denneny (1917-18), Joe Malone (1917-18) and Reg Noble (1917-18). 

Matthews opened the year with three goals in a 6-5 shootout win against the Montreal Canadiens. In that particular contest, Toronto trailed 5-3 late in the third period, but Matthews tallied two goals over the final 4:32 of regulation to tie the game and send it to overtime. After a scoreless overtime, the Maple Leafs triumphed in a shootout when Mitch Marner recorded the lone goal.

In the win against the Canadiens, Matthews became the 10th-fastest player to reach 300 goals as he did so in just 482 games.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Matthews followed up that performance with another three-goal showing in a 7-4 win against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 14. In addition, it also marked the ninth hat trick of Matthews’ NHL career. Since entering the NHL in 2016-17, Matthews has scored an NHL-best 305 goals

Matthews is currently second in the NHL with six points, trailing only Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl with seven. While it’s early in the season, the Maple Leafs star could be embarking on a historic campaign if this pace keeps up.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have made it clear that they’re going all-in in a pursuit of a Stanley Cup with their veteran core following the offseason acquisition of Erik Karlsson. One of those veterans in Evgeni Malkin has been incredibly productive through the first week of the 2023-24 season.

After being held without a point in the Penguins’ season-opening loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, Malkin rebounded with seven points (three goals and four assists) over the next three games.

Malkin tallied a goal and three assists in a 4-0 win over the Capitals in what was the 29th four-point game of his career. The veteran forward has really built some early chemistry with new linemate Reilly Smith, as he’s assisted on both of Smith’s goals so far this season.

Malkin followed up the four-point performance with a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win against the Flames on Oct. 14. 

The 37-year-old earned the primary assist on Smith’s third period goal in a win. After defenseman Ryan Graves fed the puck ahead, Malkin was able to find a wide-open Smith, who buried the easy goal against Flames netminder Jacob Markstrom

Finally, Malkin lit the lamp in the first minute of a 6-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. The Penguins star brought the puck into the zone, dumped it off to Smith, and Smith got the puck back to Malkin for an easy tap-in goal. In his career, Malkin has had a ton of success against the Red Wings with 42 points (18 goals and 24 assists) in just 28 career games.

Obviously, it’s extremely early in the season, but Malkin has appeared to find the fountain of youth over the past two seasons. The Penguins registered 83 points (27 goals and 56 assists) in 82 games throughout the 2022-23 season, which marked his highest point total since he had a 98-point campaign in 2017-18. If anything close to this type of production continues, Pittsburgh definitely has the makings of a team that can make a Stanley Cup run this season.

While he’s only been in the league for four full seasons, Cale Makar is already placing his name amongst the NHL’s all-time greats.

On Tuesday, Makar recorded an assist on Logan O’Connor’s goal in the second period of a 4-1 win over the Seattle Kraken. With that assist, the Colorado Avalanche defenseman hit the 250-point mark and became the faster blue-liner to achieve that feat in NHL history, doing so in only 241 games.

Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr previously held the record as he racked up 250 points in 247 games, while Denis Potvin (251 games), Brian Leetch (253 games) and Paul Coffey (260) also earned the honor in a short span of time.

Makar also was the fastest defenseman in NHL history to reach 200 points when he did that in just 195 games on Nov. 21, 2022. The previous record for that honor belonged to former Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov, who tallied 200 points in 207 games.

Aside from that tremendous accomplishment, Makar has been a source of consistency throughout the opening three games of the 2023-24 campaign. The Avalanche star has tallied two goals and two assists in those three contests.

To begin the season, Makar recorded a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Early in the second period, Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon was able to keep the puck in the zone and quickly flipped it over to Makar. Makar then corralled the puck and snapped a shot that beat Kings goaltender Cam Talbot.

Makar later earned a secondary assist on a Mikko Rantanen goal that put the Avalanche ahead by two goals early in the third period.

While he’s only entering his fifth professional season, Makar has already accomplished a great deal. He’s won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and he helped Colorado secure its first Stanley Cup in over 20 years. It’s hard not to be impressed by what Makar is doing — and he hasn’t even entered his prime yet.

Jordan Binnington is coming off two straight forgettable seasons in which he’s registered a goals-against-average north of 3.00. However, the St. Louis Blues goaltender is really playing well out of the gate of the 2023-24 season

In the opening two games, Binnington tallied a 1-0-1 record to go along with a 0.92 goals-against-average and a .969 save percentage. Binnington ranks second in goals-against-average and save percentage, while only surrendering a grand total of two goals across two games.

The Blues netminder stopped 33 of 34 shots and yielded just one goal in a 2-1 shootout loss against the Dallas Stars in the team’s season opener on Oct. 12. Binnington followed that performance by turning aside 30 of 31 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Seattle Kraken on Oct. 14

Binnington produced one of the more impressive saves of the young season when he stoned Stars forward Joe Pavelski in the season opener. The veteran goalie was able to snatch the puck out of the air with his glove after it appeared Pavelski had a chance for a rebound goal in the second period of that contest.

After helping the Blues win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018-19, Binnington has struggled in each of the past two seasons with goals-against-averages of 3.13 and 3.31, respectively. He really struggled throughout the 2022-23 campaign with a 27-27-6 record and a 3.31 goals-against-average.

While it’s a small sample size, it appears that Binnington is really dominating in the crease throughout the first week of the 2023-24 season, and that’s huge for the Blues.

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