SIMMONS: Like many scoring legends before him, Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews is an original

Before there was Auston Matthews, there was a National Hockey League in the 1980s and 1990s and scoring 60 or more goals in any season seemed neither impossible nor improbable.

Wayne Gretzky scored 92 one season. Brett Hull had 86. Phil Esposito had 76. Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux both had spectacular careers in which they averaged more than 60 goals per 82 games played.

The last time anyone scored as many as 70 goals in an NHL season was in 1993 (Teemu Selanne, Alexander Mogilny) — and that happened to be the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup, also the last time the Maple Leafs should have played for the Cup and the same season in which Doug Gilmour combined for 162 points, regular season and playoffs.

When Matthews became the ninth player in hockey history to have at least two 60-goal scoring seasons, he did so on a platform all his own.

Great as Alexander Ovechkin has been as a goal scorer — and he will statistically become the all-time leading scorer in about two years time — he hasn’t hit the 60-goal mark twice in his career. Matthews, truth is, is unlike anyone who has ever played for the Maple Leafs or maybe any other team for that matter.

Is he already the greatest player in Leafs history? The greatest goal scorer, without question. The greatest player? That one will have to wait.

No Leaf of this century or any other one has had a season comparable to what Gilmour accomplished in 1993. Gilmour couldn’t have been more different than Matthews. He was small to Matthews’ giant size. He didn’t shoot particularly well. He had remarkable vision and instincts and an innate ability to make everyone around him better and taller and smarter and occasionally meaner.

Some hockey players — some athletes really in any sport — are blessed with an inherent talent to see what others cannot. Gilmour gifted Dave Andreychuk his only 50-goal season, just as he had done the same to Håkan Loob and Joey Mullen in Calgary prior to coming to Toronto.

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The edge he played with made him the most attractive athlete in Toronto who wasn’t named Roberto Alomar. Pat Burns’ Leafs of ’93 and ’94 were the most lovable hockey franchise this city has known since the championship teams of the 1960s.

And at just about the same time, Alomar was using his vision, his instincts, his pure joy of baseball, to help bring two World Series teams to Toronto.

If that seems a long time ago, it’s only because it is. But what Matthews is doing now, in a regular season context, is in need of both a time check and further reference — because it’s never happened before under these circumstances, and it’s nothing like the modern NHL had ever known.

This isn’t the free flowing ’80s. These aren’t the high scoring ’90s. The remarkable rookie Connor Bedard has scored 21 goals in Chicago this season. The rookie, Selanne, scored 76 goals in 1993 in a season in which NHL teams scored an average of 3.63 goals per game.

This year, as Matthews heads towards 70 or close to it, league scoring is at 3.11 goals per game. That means, on average, a team is scoring 43 fewer goals than it did in Selanne’s big year and Matthews is scoring more than he ever has before.

And Matthews happens to be scoring more than anyone since Lemieux in 1996.

I’ve always referred to Mike Bossy as the greatest goal scorer ever. Because he was so natural. Because it looked so easy for him. He got the puck, like Matthews, and he just shot it. Bang. He didn’t aim all that often, he once told me. He didn’t rotate his stick angles the way players rotate today.

He just scored.

It was different for Lemieux. He was as much artist as he was goal scorer. The shot was the last thing you’d notice about Lemieux because his hockey beauty was so extreme. It was his size and his skill and dexterity — he was as much a dancer and a dazzler as he was a hockey player.

He was the greatest talent in hockey. If only his health and at times his passion matched his talent. Then every record would be his. And everyone else — Matthews included — would be chasing him.

When Matthews reached the 60-goal mark and celebrated emotionally on Saturday night, it was apparent what that goal meant to him and really, what it meant for history. More than 7,000 players have suited up in the NHL: Matthews became just the ninth player in history, the first American trained player to score as many as 60 goals in a season, twice.

Prior to Matthews making the list, there were the Canadians, Esposito and Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Bossy and Lemieux; the Finn, Jari Kurri; the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure; and the Canadian trained American Brett Hull all with 60 goals at least twice on their resume.

What a list to be part of. The eight before him were all so different. Kurri, the benefactor of Gretzky, was nothing like Hull, who was nothing like Bure, who was nothing like Bossy. Gretzky and Lemieux couldn’t have been more opposite and the games of Esposito and Yzerman were not at all alike.

Matthews is an original. Nothing quite like the eight who came before him, seven of whom combined to win 22 Stanley Cups. Only Bure from the list never won. He did get to Game 7 of the Cup Final in 1994. The other seven were highly decorated: Kurri with five Cups; Bossy and Gretzky with four; Yzerman with three. Hull, Esposito and Lemieux with two apiece.

Matthews has one playoff series victory to his name has scored just 22 career playoff goals in all.

Gretzky had 122.

This has to be next target — one that would matter most to Leafs fans. That has to be next — the scoring greatness of Matthews translating to the post-season.

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