Each week, stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber and Sonny Sachdeva have gone Inside the Highlight Reel to break down the silkiest moves from the NHL’s best, dissecting them to explain why they’re so dangerous and demonstrating how to master them yourself.
Over the course of these quarantimes, we’ve taken a deeper look into the ways in which dynamic offensive creativity reigns supreme in today’s game.
For most of the plays highlighted, that’s taken the form of a high-skill move that opened up a chance on net — a sequence that eluded a defender or two and allowed the player in question to wind up with open space, in an unexpected position. But for Auston Matthews, we see another aspect of how elite stickhandling can impact offence in today’s game — in creative techniques applied to the shot itself.
Since breaking into the league in 2016-17, Matthews has made his name as one of the game’s premier snipers, the focal point of his shooting arsenal being without question his wrist shot — and more specifically, the drag-release shot that sees him alter the angle before wiring the puck cage-side.
We’ve spoken to stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber about that technique in the past, how its effectiveness hinges on the ability to control the puck with the toe of the stick. With Matthews and his Maple Leafs gearing up for the potential playoff tournament, we close out the Inside the Highlight Reel series with a closer look at how that drag-release shot works, and how to master it yourself.
Since the beginning of the sports world’s shutdown, we’ve called on Barber to share his on-ice expertise and answer these questions for young players using the downtime to fine-tune their skill sets. The YouTube-phenom-turned-skills-coach has made his name dissecting the finer points of offensive wizardry — while amassing half a million followers online, the Toronto native has trained NHLers like Jonathan Toews and Jake Virtanen, and coached local Vancouverites alongside Canucks captain Bo Horvat.
Over the series’ run, Barber broke down Mitch Marner’s backhand toe drag, Sidney Crosby’s one-handed magic, Connor McDavid’s use of the art of deception, Elias Pettersson’s mastery of ‘The Forsberg’, David Pastrnak’s trophy-clinching creativity, Alex Ovechkin’s go-to dangle, Evgeni Malkin’s backhand spin-o-rama and Matthew Tkachuk’s between-the-legs, top-shelf snipe.
For the final instalment, he explains the intricacies of Matthews’ signature shot:
The key to the technique should be fairly obvious given the end result of its application — it grants Matthews a sense of unpredictability at the last possible moment before shooting.
“This shot has been around for a while, but no one has quite mastered it like Matthews has,” Barber says. “It slings off his blade so unpredictably, so quickly, and with precision accuracy. What makes this so effective is that it allows him to create a shooting lane for himself while changing the angle of the release point — this allows him to get around defenders sticks and confuse goaltenders.”
Watching the above sequence in slow motion, we can see that bit of deception play out. Canadiens defender Jeff Petry sets up for the block in front of Matthews, his positioning based on where No. 34’s stick sits and what that suggests about where he’ll be releasing the puck, only to see the centreman pull it around him and whip it easily past Petry and into the cage.
As Barber has explained in the past, while the move is a variation of a standard wrist shot, the skill that enables it to be so effective is actually Matthews’ stickhandling ability.
That well-established foundation allows him to break out different variations of this technique based on where he and the defender are positioned, and where space opens up around the netminder, Barber says. Take this one from a game against Ottawa:
“On this example, he pulls it back with the backhand and ever-so-slightly drags it with the toe, which evades the defenders stick for the quick release,” Barber says. “How much you drag the puck with the toe depends on where the shooting lane is, and we’ve certainly seen some pretty wide drag and releases from Matthews.”
A look at another instance against the Senators shows the opposite application — Matthews sets up with the puck far off his body, on the defender’s right side, and pulls it all the way around to the latter’s left:
That’s about as drastic an angle-change as you’d be able to muster given the circumstances — and that space between Matthews’ hands and body at the beginning of the above clip also plays a key role in affecting the whip of the shot that follows, Barber explains.
“It’s so important that the puck starts out off the body because that gives Matthews the ability to pull it in while keeping his hands away from the body, to create the flex on the stick,” Barber says.
“As he pulls it back with the backhand, he transfers his weight from his left leg to the right in preparation for the shot. And it’s so important that the loading of the puck goes directly to the toe so that it’s cupped in there and ready to be released, or dragged and released, whenever you want with no wasted motion.”
It’s among the most effective of any of the moves highlighted by Barber over the past couple months, because of how little room it leaves the opposition to react. Unlike the other dangles featured, which tend to conclude with a shooter in a certain spot and a netminder usually out of position and aware of what’s coming, Matthews’ premier skill throws a wrench into his opponents’ plans only moments before they have to deal with the fallout.
And that ability to manipulate the puck within the shooting motion itself, to call an audible and reposition the point at which the shot’s trajectory toward the net will begin, allows Matthews to break out the move even without having time to set up in front of a defender for a second or two.
For a more detailed breakdown of how the Maple Leafs centreman has burned teams with this technique, and how to master the move yourself, we asked Barber to demonstrate the sequence step-by-step, and offer up one drill to build up the skills to pull it off.