Auston Matthews has always been able to score goals at an elite pace. Goal-scoring is his thing, and always will be. But leading up to the draft where the Leafs took him in 2016, he didn’t find the back of the net the way he does now. And the way he’s scored up until now might not be the way he does it from here on out.
I remember looking back at highlights of Matthews as a junior-aged player in the summer that Toronto took him. He had a fantastic shot, and also scored a ton of tap-ins and such in tight using his strength in front of the net – those were kind of two weapons that stood out the most at the time. But when he actually broke out for the Leafs in the following season, he started showing skills that likely surprised even his strongest supporters. His shooting was different, vastly improved – already at the top end of what pros can do. It wasn’t that lethal before. The mechanics weren’t the same.
That’s because in that summer of 2016, Matthews did something that most hockey players probably don’t when they get selected in the NHL draft, let alone first overall: He changed his shot, all of it.
Apparently it wasn’t that difficult, either.
According to Darryl Belfry, the Leafs’ player development consultant, Matthews decided to strip things down and build them back up to bring his game to another level. In a recent Full 60 episode with Craig Custance, Belfry broke it down when chatting about how elite athletes can learn new mechanics in a matter of fewer repetitions than we might have thought possible.
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.
I’ll go ahead and assume you’re thinking the same thing Custance went ahead and asked next: Why would a player that good change it all up? Seems risky, no?
Belfry goes on to explain that, for Matthews, being “pretty good” is not where it’s at. He wants to be the best, and he’ll evaluate and re-evaluate everything to keep chipping away at getting there.
He knows he has the capacity to change it. He knows he has the capacity to change it because his learning capacity is so high.
And trying to be the next Stamkos or the next Ovechkin? Nah. Matthews, as Belfry points out, is more interested in being the next Auston Matthews. Something unique, a player doing things no one else can.
I think we’ve already seen a glimpse of that in Matthews’ sophomore year, where his shot seemed even more elusive – the goals he scored weren’t the same as the previous year. His movements and angles were new, the way he disguised the shot was so much better.
Could he show something different again this season? He’s going to try, because, according to Belfry, he’s revamped things again. Like, this summer. 2018.
Why? Again, it seems when Matthews thinks goalies may start watching the tape and figuring him out, he wants to add something else to the arsenal.
What you have to understand is, even though he was doing so well with great results, he hadn’t maximized his ability. He hadn’t leverage all his assets. Now we need to leverage more of the assets. He’s not interested in scoring 40 goals. He scored 40 goals his first year. He’s not interested in that. He’s interested in maxing out his ability. How good can Auston Matthews be? He’s interested in being the best he can be. If it’s not at its best, it’s subject to full evaluation.
Naturally, you’d think guys like Babcock and Dubas might be keeping a close eye on this sort of stuff. Skills development coaching or “innovating” can get weird, as we’ve seen in the cases of guys like Markelle Fultz, who totally changed his shooting mechanics before entering the NBA, to… uhh, yet-to-be-determined results. But while Babcock might seem old school and plain, this reinventing of skillsets is something that’s likely right up his alley. The whole reason he’s in Toronto (besides the other 50-million) is to step outside his comfort zone and open a new chapter on his career. [The guy actually believes you should completely change careers every ten years if you can]. I can’t see any concern coming from him or the front office (who hired Belfry as a team consultant) when it comes to Matthews’ pursuit of greatness.
This training camp is nearly over and one of the things that’s stood out the most from it is how Matthews has turned things up to 11. We know now it isn’t just because he did a few extra reps in the gym or cut out the sweets. For him, it seems the offseason is a time when he can put his whole game on the table and turn a critical eye to it, then adjust as necessary.
[The link to the Full 60 Podcast is above, but you can also read the full transcript right here if you have an Athletic subscription]