Almost two years to the day since his final NHL appearance, Peter Budaj strapped on the pads and unleashed a brilliant performance.
Stopping everything sent at him, Budaj looked up to see a goalie-deflating challenge headed his way: Connor McDavid carrying the puck, Auston Matthews on the opposite wing. Two of the NHL’s most lethal talents — a combined 81 goals and 177 points during the 2019-20 season.
“People say you should anticipate this and that,” Budaj said. “You can’t anticipate with these guys, because they’ll burn you if you cheat. They will pick you apart. I was just trying to get good position, force them to beat me with a great shot.”
McDavid passed to Matthews. It was perfect, as you would expect. Right in Matthews’ wheelhouse.
“He was going bar-down,” Budaj said. “That’s his shot.”
“Auston shot from about 20-25 feet away and he shoots the puck about as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Shane Doan, a witness to this performance. “His attitude was, ‘Sorry Petey, but I’ve got to score. You haven’t let me score.’ I don’t think I could ever shoot the puck like that on my goalie, especially in practice. It’s cold, but I loved it.”
The blast hit Budaj right in the facemask.
“He felt pretty bad about it,” Budaj says, laughing. “He came over right away, ‘Man I’m sorry.’ I told him, ‘No big deal.’ I was fine. He was trying to score.”
“That’s what (Matthews) said to me right after,” Doan adds. “It was hitting the net, it was going to go in. That’s what his job is. It is so cool to see that desire to score.”
Budaj and Doan have a front-row seat to what’s quietly become hockey’s hottest show the past two weeks. McDavid, awaiting the NHL’s return and in search of something to get his competitive juices flowing, joined Matthews in Arizona earlier this month. They were teammates on Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey; both are Wasserman Hockey clients.
They’ve been skating together four times a week. Word got out, much to the intrigue of their peers. Jonathan Toews arrived last weekend. Others participating include Jake Bean, Anthony Duclair, Matt Dumba, Alex Galchenyuk and several Coyotes. Doan runs the practices. Needing NHL-calibre netminding, he called Budaj, who lives in the area. Prior to this, Budaj put on his goalie equipment just once in the last 15 months — to play beer league.
McDavid’s also shown his determination to win these scrimmages.
“He knows the score of each game,” Doan said, remembering one where someone said it was 3-2. “‘No, no, no, no,’ Connor said, ‘It’s not 3-2, it’s 3-3.’ He doesn’t want to lose to anybody. All of a sudden, he just goes faster than anyone else on the ice.”
While Matthews and McDavid agreed to answer some questions via email, they politely declined to share video of their work. (Great performers prefer an air of mystery.) What have they noticed about each other in this opportunity to spend time together?
Matthews on McDavid: “The respect goes back for so long. Connor’s hockey IQ, speed and edges are so impressive — to say the least — and his vision at the speed he moves obviously stands out, yet it really is the whole package with him.”
McDavid on Matthews: “When you watch his game, his shot is the first thing you notice. But, spending more time together, I’ve noticed just how smooth he is on the ice. It’s very impressive.”
If they could take one thing from the other’s game, what would it be?
McDavid: “Wish I had his shot, of course.”
Matthews: “97’s skating ability.”
Getting some reps in pic.twitter.com/AtuFJilVvx
— Connor McDavid (@cmcdavid97) November 20, 2020
In separate phone conversations, Budaj (17 professional seasons) and Doan (1,540 career NHL games) marvelled at what they saw from both players, cornerstones of their teams and the league. How they competed, how they practised, how they carried themselves.
“They’re hockey nerds and I love it,” Doan said. “You want the guys that are the best to love the game as much as those two do.”
He asks Matthews and McDavid what they want to work on, tailoring drills from their answers.
“The other day we did a bunch of stuff on backhands. Catching passes on your backhand; catching passes and making a move to your backhand; four or five drills in regards to your backhand. It’s something you don’t always work on, but it’s so important. You watch those guys catch and receive passes on their backhand, and you realize how valuable that is. As fast as they are, the ability to catch and receive that pass buys you a quarter-of-a-second every single time you catch it clean. And if you give Auston or Connor a quarter-of-a-second, they cover about six feet of ice. If you give them six feet of ice, you’re in trouble. So their ability to catch those passes becomes such a big part of their game. Connor, he catches passes and makes a move quick. He catches it and he wants to go through a stick, or under a stick, or around a pylon.”
“I can’t get over how fast their hands are.”
I did ask both Matthews and McDavid about things they were determined to work on this offseason. Neither specifically mentioned the backhand; I’m not sure that’s much of a surprise. But it fits with Matthews’ response, in particular.
“I am always trying to add layers to my game and remain as versatile as possible,” he wrote. “So not sure any one thing. Just trying to improve in all aspects.”
McDavid provided a bigger picture.
“Continued to try and add upper body strength. Using ELDOA practice to increase flexibility, posture and muscle tone for injury prevention. (ELDOA is a French acronym. It’s not Yoga, but similar.) Also worked on faceoffs as well as defensive-zone stuff.”
Doan mentioned that some college players are in these skates, and the biggest difference between them and the likes of Matthews/McDavid is how fast the latter two are with the puck.
“They do everything at 99 per cent. I don’t know if there’s any difference when (Matthews/McDavid) have the puck or don’t have the puck. Other players aren’t as fast when carrying it. At the beginning of my career, it was, ‘You pass to me, I one-time it.’ Then it moved to, ‘I’ll pass to you, you pass back to me, and I’ll one-time it.’ And now it’s, ‘Okay, I’m going to be skating as fast as I can, you’re going to pass it to me, I’m going to quickly handle the puck, make a move and shoot the puck.’ It’s just the way they do everything at top speed, so impressive.”
Budaj, who would like to go into coaching, said he considered pulling his 10-year-old son (also named Peter) from school to see these practices.
“I wanted him to see how hard (Matthews and McDavid) work. They do the drills really, really hard. There’s some college kids who skate with us too, and Connor’s backchecking. The work ethic of the superstars resonates with me. They are on top of the food chain in hockey, they’re trying to improve their game. They take it seriously.
“They’re incredible skaters. The way they utilize their edges and work on their skating. Skating ability is very, very important for young players…Both guys, different type of players, but both skate really, really well. Auston is a big guy and he moves so effortlessly, and obviously, so does Connor. To be able to skate as well as they do, and do everything as well with your stick while skating…They never had their feet stationary, they were always moving, that’s why they can make those plays. Constant edge-work, crossovers, stops and starts, everything. The speed that they are doing the drills, the speed they do their moves…you can see the difference between a good player and a great player…everything is just 100 m.p.h., there’s no slacking, no slowing down.
“Also, they see the ice really, really well. They see the play happen before it happens. It seems that they are making a blind pass, but they’re not. They know that the play is going to happen that way, because they can read the play at full speed, their feet and hands are working together perfectly.”
If there are any complaints about these skates, it’s that Matthews and McDavid are too often on the same team for the scrimmages. That’s pretty funny, but they want it that way — a chance to play together, for a change.
It’s been good for the defencemen, including Dumba, Bean and Jordan Schmaltz — currently unsigned after splitting 2019-20 between AHL Toronto and Bridgeport.
“Those guys are battling hard,” Doan said. “They don’t want to get beat.”
McDavid’s temporary move to Arizona also gives both men the opportunity to spend some downtime together, although they prefer to keep that out of the spotlight. Asked if they discuss their NHL organizations — what Edmonton and Toronto are like — both said, “Some things are private.”
Matthews and McDavid have that in common. They do their talking on the ice. Over the past two weeks, they’ve been doing plenty of it. Whenever we start the 2020-21 season, they’ll be ready for more.