Elite 101: Goal Scorers

John Gibson
The Players' Tribune

There are a lot of different attributes that make a great hockey player.

Everyone likes to talk about the fastest player, or the one with the hardest shot.

But as a goalie, those guys are a little bit easier to read — a bit more predictable. When the speedy winger gets the puck, you know he’s looking to burn a defenseman down the boards. When the hammer-shot gets the puck at the point, you know to square up and get big. Those guys are tough to handle, for sure, but like I said, they’re just that bit more predictable than the players who actually keep goalies up at night.

The nightmare-inducing guys, those are the ones who — how do I put this? — just find a way to put the puck in the net when I thought, absolutely, that I had that corner covered.

Those guys are the ones you can’t prepare for, really.

Those guys are — without a doubt — the best goal scorers in the world.

And I’m going to give you the five that I hate playing against the most, in no particular order.

Right now.

Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid

Going with a duo here because I can’t play against the Oilers without worrying about both — so I can’t write about just one.

I think the thing about these two that most people don’t fully appreciate is their chemistry.

Look at this goal against the Penguins they scored a few years ago. I remember seeing this on tape when we played them later that season.


Obviously it’s an incredible piece of skill from McDavid to beat the defensemen and then force Letang to get low to the ice to block the shot. But the thing that makes this so unstoppable is the fact that McDavid can make you believe that he has no idea that Draisaitl is there. McDavid gets the puck, Draisaitl slips slightly beside and behind him meaning that, for a full three seconds, McDavid can’t see where his linemate is. But he knows. And that’s what makes this, literally, impossible to stop. If McDavid peeks over his shoulder, or Draisaitl yells for the puck, the goalie at least knows it’s a possibility and he can be ready to shift his weight and try to make a great save if McDavid pulls off the pass.

But none of that happens and McDavid slides a perfect pass to Draisaitl who has his stick on the ice and is in the perfect spot to slot it home.

They do stuff like this all over the ice and create an unpredictably that makes defending them a huge, huge problem for other teams.

I remember a play from a regular season game against them in 2017, too. I can’t exactly pinpoint what game it was in, but I had never seen anything like it. Basically, Draisaitl, who was facing the net, had his back to McDavid, and somehow, McDavid fired a pass to the back of Draisaitl’s stick. Then Draisatl just puts it on his forehand and creates a great chance. It didn’t turn into a goal, but it was truly one of the weirdest things I’ve seen on the ice. It was some magic trick type stuff.

After the whistle I was sort of looking around for anyone to make eye contact with and acknowledge what they had just done.

You’ll see a lot of guys doing that when they’re playing against them.

Nathan MacKinnon

There’s a lot of fast guys in the league.

But there’s a difference between speed, and Nathan MacKinnon Speed.

What’s the difference?

He can shoot, about as well as anybody in the league, at full speed. When he’s flat-out, he’s just as deadly as when he’s standing still and taking target practice at the All-Star Game. As a goalie, it almost paralyzes you when he cuts across the middle of the ice. He’s going so fast, and you just have no idea what’s coming next because he’s got the ability to either put the puck on somebody’s tape or just let one go. And since you’ve always got to be prepared for that, it’s almost like you’re stuck waiting for a shot that might never come. I think the last few years you’ve seen him bring that next level of skill into his game, where he finds ways to create a foot of space here or there when he’s got the puck so that he can get his shots off.

His motion is wicked and, yeah, he can do it at full speed so it adds a unique element to his game. When I see him coming down the wing, I know I have to respect his speed first and foremost. With most guys, I’d come out and cut down the angle, but if you do that against MacKinnon he just takes another three strides and he’s behind you, and by the time you turn your head he’s celebrating in the corner.

Watching him develop into this next-level goalscorer has been pretty cool to see, even though we have to play against him quite a bit. I always thought he could do it because at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 I saw up-close how ridiculous his hands are. I mean, who can forget this play? I just want an excuse to watch it again.


That’s Henrik Lundqvist he did that to. One of the best goalies on the planet. Doesn’t make any sense watching it back. Looks like MacKinnon’s playing ball hockey and he’s taped the ball to his stick.

My view on it was a little different — I was in net at the other end. He had only been in the NHL for a few seasons, at this point. But I knew right then that he was going to be a problem.

I was right.

Big problem.

Elias Pettersson

This guy was born to score goals.

I think, at least now, the playbook is out there on him. Everyone knows about his spot and his incredible shot. Everyone knows that he plays a lot bigger than he looks, too. He’s just one of those players that feeds off the fact that you know how to play against him.

It’s one of those he knows that you know that he knows that you know situations — you know?

But I think he’s got a little secret in his shot that keeps goalies guessing when he sits right on the edge of the circle on the power play.

Here’s a goal he scored against me earlier this year.


Sometimes you’ll see him miss wide on these when he’s really trying to pick the near post. Or sometimes you’ll see him miss high when he’s trying to do what he did here. He knows that the space right to the side of my mask, just above my collarbone, is really hard to defend. If he goes further over with the shot, it’s actually easier to get my left elbow higher and cover more space. But that little gap beside my head, I can’t get my arm into that space.

Try it right now. Raise your elbow up and see how there’s this little triangle between the top of your head, your elbow and the base of your neck.

He’s shooting for that.

And you know what? When he hits it, all you can do is tip your cap and move on. There’s no stopping it. He’s a pretty special player. Lots of guys have come into the league and made a spot like that their own. My mind goes to Ovi or Stamkos, and they’ve created their own little tricks to make sure a team can’t just cheat and mark them. Pettersson does the same thing.

From the way he can cycle the puck down low with his strength, to his huge shot, he’s got a lot of tools.

He’s fun to watch because he loves to challenge guys. It’s your best against his best.

It’s just that, usually his best is better.

Auston Matthews

Matthews is one of the best examples of the modern goal scorer. I’m not much older than him but there’s still a difference between my generation of shooters and his. Matthews is one of those guys who you just know he’s been working on his wrist shot his entire life. He’s probably scored a million goals into an empty net working on his craft.

I played with him on Team North America, at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. And, same thing as with MacKinnon, you could just see how much talent he had from the moment he got the puck on his stick. You know how when you watch a really good golfer and the ball just sounds different coming off his club? Same thing. Matthews’s shots just sound different coming off his stick.

We’re seeing so many young players come into the league who can really shoot the puck, and that’s what makes Matthews’s ability so incredible. He’s that much better than almost everyone else.

For me, he’s got the best wrister in the league.

Here’s one that caught my eye from his second season.


It’s the toe drag that he’s been able to incorporate into his wrister that makes his shot so difficult to track.

As a goalie, everything is about angles for us. So when he’s coming in like that, I’m just trying to prepare for a shot from where the puck is at any given moment. But he’s able to readjust release his shot so quickly that your brain doesn’t have time to process that information. That’s Carey Price — another great goalie — who looks lost on the play, and it’s all down to that little toe drag right before the shot.

Carey has probably seen enough tape — as have I — to know that from that toe drag, Matthews can do just about anything, so you have to respect it. He can shoot, yes, but he can pull it back and lay it off, he can keep dragging and get it to his backhand. So that’s all going through the goalie’s mind there.

If you watch him enough, you’ll see he loves to shoot from those positions all the time. He uses the defender’s legs to his advantage. He wants to be marked, he wants to be closed down, he wants to shoot contested shots.

And you combine all of that with a once-in-a-generation shot, and he’s incredibly hard to square up to.

How do you defend that?

Answer: You hope he misses.

Sidney Crosby

What can I even say about Sid that hasn’t been said?

All I can do is show him embarrassing me.


I mean, the guy is basically being hacked down by our defensemen there and he somehow has the balance to stay on his feet and then ring one past me. The funny thing is (because all you can do is laugh), I’m from Pittsburgh. I grew up watching Sid play. And even when you think you’ve seen it all from him, he goes and one-ups himself.

Seeing him in his element like that and actually playing against him, it almost makes it even harder to describe why he’s so good.

It’s not really a good answer if I just tell you he’s good at everything — but he is. He can score any type of goal he wants, and he’s got the best backhander in the league, which is probably the worst thing you can read on a scouting report as a goalie. When he can just move the puck to his backhand and have just as much speed as on his forehand, it’s like having to defend against two players at once.

There’s an element of his game in all of the players I just mentioned. Every part of a pure goal scorer that you can think of, Sid has it. I’ve played against him quite a few times, and he’s scored some really impressive goals against me. Each time, when I watch it back on the highlights, you can see that Sid knows he’s going to score five seconds before the puck goes. He gets this movement about him, where he just gets into that zone — you’re not taking the puck off his stick because he’s putting it into the back of the net.

When you look at his stats over the years you can kind of see where the media started writing about his lack of goal scoring … and then he just goes and shows what he can do when he focuses on scoring.

He can do it all. And he knows when to show it.

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