Auston Matthews’ Defensive Improvement

AM34 Defensive Zone Transformation

Auston Matthews (AM34) is a dominant NHL player. His offense has been on display since his first game where he scored 4 against the Ottawa Senators. What was missing in his first few seasons was his defensive game.

Defensive basics

When talking about good defense, there are 3 basics

  • Positioning - Where you are on the ice

  • Routes - How you get from place to place

  • Body positioning - How you control space in which you are at

In order to stress these points you’ll often hear coaches stressing “stops & starts,” “ work inside to outside,” and “no fishing/establish body position.”

AM34 Missing Defense

First up, looking at positioning. AM34 plays center and has responsibility for the center of the ice. We can see here, he is not in his normal center supporting position. Hyman is looking and doesn’t find AM34 there. It leads to a turnover and goal against. From Feb 16, 2020, Leafs vs Sabres

His positioning often had him running into his teammate’s space. Even when he acquired the puck, he couldn’t do much with it.

Next, let’s take a look at routes. AM34 enters the picture on the right. He’s gliding into the defensive zone, puck watching, and failing to add to the team defense. From December 27, 2019, Leafs vs Devils.

AM34 stays on the outside rather than getting inside the dots/middle ice. He then loses defensive side positioning and his check ends up getting a great scoring chance.

After that, he skates behind the net rather than stopping in front of the net. This ends up being where NJ scores from. Yikes.

Lastly, let’s look at a common issue that you rarely see at the NHL level… fishing. Fishing = standing outside of a battle while using the stick to try and pull out the puck. It’s poor body positioning when battling to win space and the puck. From December 17, 2019, Leafs vs Sabres

Classic fishing example by AM34. Outside of the battle and trying to simply grab the push by fishing it out of the pile. The close-up doesn’t look great either.

Upgraded Defense

Sheldon Keefe took over the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 20, 2019. Auston Matthews gave him plenty of examples of where he can improve. Within a month, Auston Matthews went from average defensive center to one of the league’s best.

A little over a month later we see AM34’s defensive prowess start to emerge. Before he would’ve continued and chased behind the net, here we see him stop and head to the front of the net. He ends up with a blocked shot and the puck on his stick. From December 28, 2019, Leafs vs Rangers.

Things like this don’t change overnight, but the speed at which AM34 added these pieces to his game speaks volumes. By the 2020-2021 season, he was becoming a dominant player in the defensive end. More stops/starts, protecting the inside, better routes, and improved body positioning.

In this example we can see AM34 stopping, containing, and maintaining inside positioning.

What about coming back into the zone? Simply stopping in a good position is a great start for any player. Many players feel the gravitational pull towards the puck carrier.

AM34 has improved here as well. Now you’ll see him get into a quality position, stop, and force play into weak space. He’s not fishing or reaching, but rather controlling space effectively.

His routes were cleaner and better spaced. This is a perfect example of a center’s route through the dot lane. It’s great support while allowing for quality positioning on a turnover.

Good Defense Leads to Offense

You’ve heard the phrase before. Here is a prime example. Good defensive positioning leads to a clean breakout and starts the rush on a positive footing.

AM34 does a great job of supporting the play. He is close support for his defenders and can jump into defense easily. He stops when the puck is reversed. He even backs up slightly as he starts up the ice to give quality spacing on the breakout. It’s night/day better than the example from before against Buffalo where he ran into his teammate’s space. Now he has space to make a play.

Elite coaches around the world preach “low and slow” as a way for their centers to support the play and turn from defense to offense. AM34 does this to perfect effect here.

The Data / Analytics

The data backs what we are seeing. From Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz.Com.

As we can see in the video + data, throughout the past 2 seasons, AM34 has showcased his development into the upper echelon of great 2-way centers. Prior to the changes - AM34 had an average/below average defense impact.

After the changes - AM34 has a good defensive impact, particularly in the slot… the most dangerous area on the ice. This matches up with AM34’s video staying in the middle of the ice.

With his defensive details strengthening, it can only mean great things for the Toronto Maple Leafs going forward.

Further Reading - Defensive Hockey Principles

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