Last year in the run-up to the 2018-19 season, there was plenty of talk in Leafs Land about Auston Matthews and his work in the offseason. Most of it focused on his effort to completely re-work his shot release, where plenty of the hockey world understandably asked: “Why mess with a good thing?”
Like we found out at the time, Matthews – and he isn’t alone – was and presumably still is willing to revamp whatever he needs to in order to gain even the slightest advantage in a league where space can become non-existent and each tiny tweak matters. If we look back, some valuable quotes from Matthews’ skill coach Darryl Belfry give us a more specific idea of where he was trying to make changes or improvements, but perhaps that only tells us half the story (the shooter’s half):
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.
If you ever slow down a clip or grab a still of Matthews in shooting motion you’ll see what Belfry is getting at, but more on that later.
What I want to know is, what exactly is it about working out these new angles and footwork that gives Matthews the ability to make our jaws drop when he bombs one past a goalie in-game? Why does it work? What happens when you’re the goalie on the other end?
To get a good sense of what’s at play, we can look to baseball and the pitcher-hitter relationship. Much like the way a batter tries to track a pitch moving at 100 miles-per-hour, a goalie has to try and pick up a puck screaming towards him from guys who can really let it fly.
The secret to all this is that, well…there isn’t really any tracking going on at all. Goalies, like batters, don’t react to that object moving toward them at an obscene velocity. Because it can’t be done.
Something that really caught my ear in the past few weeks was a clip of David Epstein, author of a new book “Range” that gets into advantages of multi-sport participation, that dove into how Major League batters approach a fast-pitch softball and the difficulties that come with it. You’d think someone adept at hitting a baseball traveling 100 mph could easily pick up on a bigger ball moving slower, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong, just like I was.
The jump-off point to this quote below is about how legendary Major League ball players like Albert Pujols and even Barry Bonds had a ton of trouble trying to hit a pitch from Jennie Finch, an Olympic softball pitcher.
When I saw softball pitchers pitching to (professional) baseball players I tried to calculate quickly, “Alright, this ball is going around 60mph from 43 feet, that’s longer than a fastball these guys are used to seeing (in the MLB)”. Why can’t they hit it?
Turns out, they don’t have reaction speed to hit a fastball. Their minimum reaction speed is a 5th of second; The time it takes just to see that the ball is in front of you, that information to cross the synapses to the back of your brain, and you to then initiate musclular reaction. Initiate. Not swing, just initiate, is half the total flight time of the pitch…
That old saying “keep your eye on the ball”? It’s nonsense. Can’t do it. Kids could close their eyes when the pitch was halfway in if it weren’t so psychologically disruptive.
So what the players learn how to do is judge movements of the torso, rotation of the shoulder, orientation of the arm, and the flicker of the pitch, which is the flashing pattern the seams make as it spins. They group that together into a so-called “chunk”…that’s one data signal, that as soon as the ball is out of the hand, it says swing or don’t swing. So when they’re faced with an underhand throw, unfamiliar rotation of the joints, unfamiliar spin of the ball, they’re totally stripped of this information that makes them appear to have super-human reflexes.
The most jarring portion of that quote is the part about how, once the decision is made on that “chunk” when the ball is leaving the pitcher’s hands, the batter could close their eyes if it wasn’t such a psychological disruption. At that point they’re going to do what they’re going to do, the decision is made. Picture an NHL goalie who’s built up a bank of information in their brain to recognize hockey player shooting patterns, and throw them in a net for ringette or lacrosse, and you get an idea of how weird the adjustment would likely be.
To cycle back to Matthews and the goalies he’s terrorizing, usually a shot comes from a lot closer than a pitcher’s mound, meaning a goalie’s “eyes closed” point is just after this:
(That went in, in case you forgot)
What’s going to happen from this point where the puck is set to let loose is inevitable. And of course this is a testament to how absurdly difficult the goaltending position is as well. There’s no reaction to the actual puck while it’s sailing in, there’s no “picking it up” by the goalie’s eyes once it’s in the air. That’s why everything about a shot is essentially all the things that happen before it leaves the blade – direction of both feet, whip on the stick, hand position, twisting of the torso – something I’d think most players and goalies are well aware of, but it’s something Matthews seems hyper-tuned into.
With all that in mind, it would be almost surprising if, based on how he approached last summer and the way he added or overhauled portions to his shooting arsenal, he isn’t already looking at ways to do the same this time around.