Then tonight the Blackhawks pull their goalie with 2:33 left. And it worked. They tied the game. But the Leafs scored to take the lead. And the Blackhawks tied it again. All in that last 2.5 minutes of regulation.
Then the Leafs win 19 seconds into OT. 7-6 final.
These Leafs ---> they got some issues to deal with but they are not uninteresting.
I thought for sure someone would say, "Auston Matthews is not the best player in the NHL. He is looking good but we are only 4 games in and the Leafs have only played one borderline playoff team. You are getting carried away MudRAT!"
To which I would have replied, "I never said Auston Matthews. I was talking about Morgan Rielly."
Which I wasn't but man, what an exchange that would have been.
At this point, it’s well established that Auston Matthews has one of the best shots in the NHL, but that phrase is a little misleading. Generally when we talk about “best shot,” we’re talking about guys like Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos, or even Zdeno Chara, the type of guys who hammer one-timers so hard goaltenders should lobby for something like the NFL’s fair catch rule, where they see the pain coming and can simply opt out of accepting it, maybe for a half-goal or something. A surrender button, something.
But with Matthews, we’re talking about what’s basically a modified hockey school wrist shot, where the puck stays on the blade through wind up and release, only to be whipped past the goaltender’s ear before he realizes it’s left his blade. The comparable that quickly comes to mind would be peak-Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Semin, both of whom knew how to use today’s stick technology to create maximum torque and accuracy from what looks like a fairly common shooting motion (Phil Kessel is unique and deserves mention here too).
Matthews turned 21 less than a month ago, has already played in 149 regular season NHL games, and already has an astonishing 79 regular season goals. Since he’s been in the league, that’s tied for the highest goals-per-game of any player along with Evgeni Malkin, sitting just ahead of Patrik Laine, Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov in the top five. Sidney Crosby, that bum, is all the way back at eighth over that span. Matthews has scored on 16.6 percent of his shots, and the bulk of his goals aren’t exactly Zach Hyman/Wayne Simmonds style, “stand in the crease and whack away” conversions. He’s the rare player with a percentage rate that high where you’re not expecting regression.
Needless to say, we’re talking about a special scorer here, particularly for a kid who hasn’t even reached his prime yet. Knowing that, I thought it would be worth looking at what makes his shot so special, because there’s only so many times you can watch a guy take a wrist shot from distance and think “goalie shoulda had that” before you realize there’s something else at play there.
In my observations, I’ve noted four different things with his shot that separate him from the pack, which I’ll get to momentarily. But no piece on Matthews shot is relevant without including the following quotes from the Leafs’ skills coach Darryl Belfry, which he gave to our own Craig Custance on Craig’s excellent podcast “The Full 60.” (Here’s the full text form of the conversation, here’s the actual podcast.)
The pertinent quotes are: Belfry: […]Auston Matthews in the year going into the NHL, in that summer changed his entire shot motion. The entire thing. From top to bottom and he did it inside of 15 hours on the ice.
Changed the entire thing. The entire thing. How he shoots, how he moves in shooting. All the ways in which he creates shots. All the awareness of how, what types of shots should he create, what does he do most often? How can he expand the ways or areas or number of ways he can create the shots? Changed the entire thing.
[…]Auston Matthews’ gift is his footwork when he shoots. It’s elite. It’s different. It’s different than what everyone else does. Custance: What makes it different? What is Auston doing differently with his feet?
Belfry: He’s never centered. He’s on one foot or the other all the time. When you do that, it allows you to move inside the shot motion. Most people when they shoot, they have to stop their feet. When they stop their feet, that creates a limitation on how much they can change the angle, how deceptive they can be. How much power they can generate — I’m not talking full velocity, I’m talking about power that comes in the first 10 feet off the stick. That release speed. That’s the difference. It’s what he’s doing inside his feet. That’s the difference. It allows him to go places inside that shot that very few people can do. His shot is so unique right now, the way he delivers. Here’s the best part — he drops 40 his first year, he’s on pace for 45 last year without the injuries and he wants to revamp it again. This summer we retooled it again.
Right out of the gate we know that what allows him to do the things I’m going to mention are rooted in his footwork. I personally always struggled to keep my feet moving while shooting (read: couldn’t do it), but even some of the best in the game can’t. If you look at Matthews’ linemate William Nylander the past couple years, the huge bulk of his shots go in after he sets his feet to maximize the force of the shot, while steadying for accuracy. He has a great shot, sure, but that’s just one way Matthews is different from your average good-to-great shooter.
Here are the four things I’ve pinpointed, starting with the obvious one that comes up regularly:
The way he changes the angle
This one has been widely discussed. What “changing the angle” refers to is the distance you pull the puck in before you shoot – it’s almost impossible to push it out and get any real velocity on your shot, so I’m concentrating on pull here.
I would say the bulk of the players pull the puck in an inch or two, but the sheer distance Auston can pull the puck before shooting it – sometimes as much as a foot – would be greatly deceptive to a goalie. If the bulk of the league pulled the puck that far, they wouldn’t be able to shoot it with any force – Auston can (for reasons we’ll get to). Goaltenders start square to the blade, maybe they even anticipate the puck getting pulled in a little before release, but by the time Matthews shoots the puck is coming from a different area code. It’s almost like a mini one-timer to himself, in that goalies have to open up to get square again.
Check out how far he pulled this puck on Jeff Petry during a powerplay in this clip. Petry believes he’s in the shooting lane (as does Carey Price), but the inside drag is comically long.
You’d think everyone could use this technique, but they can’t, because of something else that makes Matthews shot special. His blade release point
Most players who take wrist shots – a shot that somewhat fell out of favour for the minutely quicker snapshot over the years – take them more or less hockey school style. Those are the basics. You load up the puck behind your feet, and as you whip the puck forward, you roll it heel-to-toe, where you release the puck. That’s not what Matthews is doing.
To my eye, the most impressive thing Matthews has done on converting goals this season is this almost one-timer-ish off-hand wrist shot thing that he can pull off because he starts his shot with the puck in the middle of the blade.
You can see here, on his overtime winner, how deft his touch is, because to take a touch shot – as in, not one he’s slapping at or smacking – he’s comfortable not having to pull it way back, and using the middle of the blade rather than the heel.
It’s just a quick cradle and flick from the middle of the blade, as he knows that from that distance, accuracy matters and velocity does not. He’s got that sense in tight and one of the reasons he’s able to make that work is because … Both hands are high on his stick
If you’ve played any level of hockey, go ahead and make a shooting motion on a wrist shot without a stick. Most of you will notice that as you pull it back, your hands separate. What that means is, when you’re ready to shoot, your bottom hand drifts down the shaft a little bit, which is a tell for goaltenders that a shot is coming. You’re loading up to get more mustard on the shot, plus it’s easier to be accurate with your bottom hand lower on the stick, like choking up on a bat in baseball. You just have more control.
Matthews holds his bottom hand unusually high and he rarely shifts it down to shoot. For one, he’s not giving the goaltender the, “I’m about to shoot” tell, which is partially why sometimes goaltenders don’t even flinch before the red light goes on. Secondly, it also allows him to better use the whip of the stick. With just a quick push into the ice with those high hands, he allows the stick to do the bulk of the work, allowing for a super quick release. Between that and being able to release it from the middle of the blade, you get results like this, where most humans would have to catch the pass, then pull back into a shooting position, then fire.
That thing wasn’t on his stick for a half second, yet he gets enough on it (along with the perfect placement) to beat Carey Price who’s rushing across to make the save.
Of course, part of what goes into this, is that… Auston Matthews is huge
There are size exceptions in every sport. In baseball, Marcus Stroman throws heat at 5’8”. Spud Webb was throwing down NBA dunks at 5’7”. Jose Altuve was the AL MVP in baseball last year at 5’6”. Smaller athletes can have wild success.
Buuut, there’s a reason we’re all so enthralled by those stories, because it’s much, much harder, particularly in contact sports to be successful when you’re at a size disadvantage. Auston Matthews hasn’t had to overcome that particular hurdle. He’s 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds at age 21, which means that when he leans into the shaft of his stick to put some flex on it – as in the goal above – he doesn’t need much time or effort for it to give him the whip he needs to get it by a desperate keeper. He’s able to put a lot of energy into his stick that responds by zipping pucks at goaltender’s ears before they’ve had time to react.
Scoring goals on wrist shots all comes down to three basic elements: velocity, accuracy, and deception. Matthews checks all the boxes. His feet don’t let you know a shot is coming. His hands give you no tells that he’s about to shoot. He starts with the puck out wide and manages to shoot it from almost in front of his lying-ass feet from the middle of his blade. When every motion you make tells fibs to the goalie, and you’re still able to get heat on the shot and place it well, you’re probably giving a few goalies red light neck tans.
Note how high his bottom hand is in the accuracy competition.
Also, is it just me, or is Carey Price of all goalies, particularly baffled by Matthews shot?
If Matthews can stay healthy, he’ll take a legit run at the Rocket Richard trophy this season. That shot is too dangerous to think anything else.
After 2 periods tonight, Matthews has another goal.
Morgan Rielly has a goal and an assists which puts him all alone atop the league scoring with 12 points.
Now, while this is the Leafs 5th game, there are at least a couple teams only playing their 2nd game tonight so those players don't really have a fair shot in the race. One of those teams is Edmonton which has a pretty good scorer too.
Anyhoo - before tonight's game, Rielly was the first defenceman in over 30 years to have 10 points after 4 games.
Yeah I dunno. That is another big consideration for me: what happens at the next best-on-best international tourney? I mean, not that I'm totally quaking in my boots at team USA. Canada still has McDavid, Crosby, perhaps Schiefele up the middle. Tavares. We got a few weapons.