NRH Analysis #2 – Auston Matthews

NRH Analysis #2 is up. This time we’re looking at Auston Matthews and how he solves a rather common situation and turns it into something special. And like our previous analysis, this play is coming off the wall and low in the offensive zone—something that’s been a big theme for a lot of the athletes that train with us.

And as always, we’ll be looking at this play through an ecological lens as much as possible. What’s that mean? In short, we’re valuing and placing emphasis on the interaction between the athlete and the environment. Most analysis focuses solely on the solution. Here we’ll try and dive into the problem as well.


Game: Toronto Maple Leafs vs Colorado Avalanche – December 1st, 2021
Result: 8-3 win for TOR
Player focus: #34 Auston Matthews, Center, Toronto Maple Leafs

Linemates: #16 Mitch Marner – RW, #58 Michael Bunting – LW, #78 TJ Brodie – RD (left shot), #44 Morgan Reilley – LD (left shot).

Opposition: #91 Nazem Kadri – C, #95 Andre Burakovsky – LW, #13 Valeri Nichushkin – RW, #4 Bowen Byram – LD (left shot), #49 Samuel Girard – RD(left shot), #31 Jonas Johansson – G.

At this point in the season, Auston Matthews is playing incredibly well and his team is rolling. It’s fair to assume that his confidence is supremely high. A scary thought for almost any team as Matthew’s is a 6’3 205lb athlete who can impact the game in almost anyway. His shot is as lethal as any player in the league. But his physical attributes combined with his dynamic shooting ability only tell part of the story. Matthew’s is remarkably dynamic in almost any situation due to his uncanny poise with the puck and ability to work through almost any movement problem. Combine this elite level sensitivity to his environment with his physical strength and size and you have a player who, beyond the highlight reels dekes, is also superbly effective near the wall.

Rink: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
Period: 3rd
Shift length for Matthews and his line:  19:37-19:16 – 27 seconds
Shift Location: OZ Faceoff. After the OZ FO win, the remaining 27 seconds take place entirely in the offensive zone. The most important constraint, however, is the Avalanche have iced the puck just prior to this ensuing faceoff, not allowing any of the Avalanche players to change. It’s pure speculation on our part, but there’s a good chance fatigue and the D pairing (Byram and Girard) are not ideal for taking on the Matthews line.

Toronto is up 5-2 at this point in the game and a strong shift here from Matthews and company will dictate whether the Avs have any chance at turning things around. In a situation like this one, the game plan is simple—win the draw and see if you can establish your OZ structure. It’s about as common a situation as you can get in hockey.

Lead up to Problem #1

The pictures above reveal a couple simple zone concepts. First, for Matthews, the instant the puck is possessed by his defenseman, he sprints to the net. Kids at all levels are told to work to the net, but watching the clip closely reveals how fast Matthews attacks this area. He knows his defenseman, #76 Brodie, has very limited time and that any potential scoring chance from his D will depend on his presence near the net. However, even with Matthew’s quick reaction, the second picture shows a great angle of what Brodie might have seen and what affordances may have been available to him. Clearly, with COL D #49 Girard in the lane and COL F #13 Nichushkin closing quickly, Brodie, a left shot D playing the right side, elects to rim the puck low.

Problem #1: The forecheck for Matthews

Bowen Byram is in the advantageous but very difficult position of having the inside lane on a rimmed puck with Auston Matthews coming hard on his back. For all defensemen reading this analysis, look at where Byram is scanning the ice. Often, many defensemen will follow a rimmed puck with their eyes until they corral it and then scan for options. That strategy is simply too slow for this level, and if Byram had any chance on the play, it would have been knowing where his outlet was before he got to the puck. Unfortunately, and again this is speculation, Byram may not have seen LW Nichushkin high in the zone.

Here we can see Matthews has closed the gap and has placed his stick on the left side of Byram. Most teams want to eliminate the option for the opposing defenseman to use the net and change sides of the ice. Again, speculation on the exact role of TOR’s team structure, but flushing Byram back up the strong side clearly makes everything easier for the other TOR forwards, especially TOR LW #58 Bunting.

Whether it was a read by Matthews that pulled him this far behind Byram or a tactical team goal to flush the D up the strong side, we can see how Matthews is already readjusting himself to get even with Byram. A lot of high-level players would opt to go one hand on their stick and try to eliminate any pass option by reaching around Byram and trying to go stick on puck. Matthews, on the other hand, has not once gone to one hand on his stick. By maintaining both hands, he is forced to move his feet to get on the outside and seal Byram off.

Again, you can see the two hands and the distance Matthews has pulled himself off the wall. More importantly, the closer one is to the wall, especially their hip, the less leverage they’re able to generate against the opponent. It’s common sense, but it’s something the players at the pro level seem to have a keen knowledge of. The light blue arrow coming across the boards highlights the advantageous leverage situation for Matthews.

As the forecheck is successful, I do want to point out that I think Matthews is keenly aware of #58 Bunting. Had #58 not been there for support, Matthews movement solution here may have been different: stick may have stayed down on the ice and the seal through Byram not as aggressive as he would have probably wanted to gain some separation. Again, speculation, but changing the dynamics of the environment will most likely change the actions of the athlete.

Problem #2: Recognizing the shared affordances between Marner and Matthews

Immediately following Matthews forecheck, #58 Bunting’s quick support leads to him making a terrific play under immediate pressure. As shown, Bunting picks up on the affordance to move the puck to #16 Marner by slipping it between COL #91 Kadri’s legs. Watching the video over, Bunting hesitates for a split second before making the pass. I think he is distinctly attuned and sensitive to both how Kadri is approaching (the speed and body position) and Marner who is open behind Kadri. Everything about Kadri suggests a big time hit, and as such he’s opened up passing lanes! Finding gaps and executing plays under that kind of pressure is a skill that every coach should try to design into their training, and often!

Just below Bunting, Matthews has pulled off Byram and is taking in the situation again. Byram has not found his way to the inside of the ice yet, and it will soon cost him. The other interaction that’s quickly forming here is the one between TOR #16 Marner and COL #49 Girard. Marner’s time and space creates a problem for Girard. By attacking Marner, one of the best passers in the game, he knows he leaves a lane for Matthews. But by staying back, he affords one of the best passers in the game time and space.

#49 Girard moves into space near Marner and tries to take away the passing lane with good stick position. However, one of the reason’s Marner is such a terrific passer is due to his ability to change his body position while opening other passing lanes that didn’t exist a moment prior. This situation highlights that skill, as Girard commits to one side Marner rolls through a mohawk and begins to make a behind the back pass to Matthews.

The recognition by Matthews to skate into the lane combined with Marner’s ability to get the pass through a gap that literally emerges and decays in seconds (notice how Girard has already changed his stick position to try and eliminate the pass, albeit too late) shows just how sensitive players must become to their environment in order to play at a high level.

Problem #3: Pass reception and maximizing time and space

 As you can see, the Marner pass connects but as it does Matthews immediately recognizes that RW #95 Burakovsky has dropped to help defend the slot area in front of the net. What Matthews definitively picks up on only he knows. However, from the image above I think it’s pretty clear he’s picking up the COL #95’s stick fast approaching his own. I’d like to point how this to me a is another great example of a constraint offering an affordance. Matthews could receive this puck in any number of ways, but his unique solution to this unique problem is to catch the puck on and through a backhand toe-drag and let the puck slide to space. It’s truly an incredible display of an athlete being highly adaptable to the movement problem forming around him.

The final aspects to the Matthews movement solution involve his ability to simultaneously shield the puck while also stretching around 6’5 COL goaltender Jonas Johansson. Matthew’s body, hand, and balance, in this moment, make lifting the puck over the pad a difficult option. Instead, he outwaits Johansson by simply holding onto the puck until he is almost all the way around the goaltender’s outstretched pad.

So, what we can we take away from this analysis on Matthews’ and the play in general? Well, it’s important to recognize that puck movement among players in tight spaces is what kept this individual play alive. We covered roughly 12 seconds of a 37 second play, and there were multiple touches and reads by different players—Bunting, Marner, even Brodie with his decision to work the puck deep again. It’s been talked about ad nauseum by USA Hockey and many others, but constraining elements of our game that force players to make decisions in tight spaces is beneficial. Having said that, we can take it a step further than simply more small area games. Rather, by looking over the breakdown we can see that 2 passes were made (Bunting to Marner and Marner to Matthews) and the receptions from both Marner and Matthews required unique solutions. There is an unlimited number of ways for us as coaches, and even players, to constrain situations that would allow for more unique pass reception solutions. It’s this kind of detail in our intentions for a session that I think can really drive our players to the next level.

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