A “Signature Skill” is an authentic expression of an elite player’s athleticism and imagination.
In this series, NHL forward Sam Gagner and I identify and break down the details of some of the world’s best hockey players.
Part 1: Artemi Panarin
Part 2: Patrice Bergeron
Part 3: Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews has already proven himself to be one of the best goal scorers in the league.
Earlier in his career he played the left side on the power play, where he showed a great ability to drag the puck into the middle to create a lane for himself. More recently he’s played on his off-wing side, where he has shown the ability to catch and release and score off the one-timer at a high frequency.
There are a lot of players with shots that make them effective on the power play, but Matthews’ ability to shoot in so many different ways makes him a threat in all situations.
Defensemen are getting better and better at getting into shot lanes. But Matthews is better than anyone in the game at changing his release depending on what the situation calls for. He has shown the ability to shoot off either foot, off a push or a pull, on a catch-and-shoot and also off the one-timer - off the rush or from a spot.
In addition, he has a great understanding of the game and is able to get inside defenders to create further scoring opportunities for himself and his line mates.
This versatility makes him the best goal scorer in the league right now, in my opinion.
While Sam marvels at Matthews’ ability to score goals in any situation and off myriad different shots, I am impressed at how AM34 is able to consistently find himself available in high-conversion situations.
His intentions might be difficult to read for his opponents, but he is actually very adept at creating predictability for his teammates and himself.
TOR34 2019-20 Regular-Season Goals (47)
One-timer: 17 goals
Catch-and-shoot: 9 goals
Redirection/tip: 4 goals
Rebound: 5 goals
Off a carry: 9 goals
Empty net: 2 goals
In 2019-20, a whopping 26 of Matthews’ 47 regular-season goals (55%) were scored less than a second after he received a pass from a teammate.
As I explained in a Patrik Laine case study, high-end NHL scorers follow a Power-Law distribution in their goal production. In other words, most of their goals come off similar-looking plays that they look to run as often as possible.
In Matthews’ case, he is primarily looking to shoot immediately off a pass, before opposing skaters can get a stick or body part in his shooting lane and before the goalie can push across and square up to the puck.
Matthews’ fearsome finishing moves get most of the attention, and rightfully so. But equally essential to his success as an elite scorer is his ability to help his team create passing sequences. It is not uncommon for him to “earn” a fourth, third or even second assist on one of his trademark quick-release goals.
The better he dishes the puck, the more often he gets it back.
Most goal-scorers are like Matthews in the sense that they do their best work when shooting off quality passes.
How aspiring scorers at any level of play can help their team help themselves:
Win loose-puck races in all three zones, then make a continuation play to start a passing sequence
Get the puck off the wall and into the middle of the ice, dish it to a teammate, then sprint to a scoring area
Create controlled DZ exits and OZ entries so that their team can control the flow of the game and play more often with the puck
These three habits have nothing to do with shooting the puck in the net, but it is Matthews’ mastery of those aspects that make him a consistent 40+ goal scorer in the NHL.
Photo: Getty/USA Today
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