SN exclusive: Hall of Famer Mike Modano marvels at Auston Matthews' skill

Remember: The next time you are awed by one of Auston Matthews' jaw-dropping goals, even a Hockey Hall of Famer like Mike Modano is just as impressed as everyone else.

“It’s unexpected, (the goalies) go down, they look foolish and the thing is by them before they know it,” marveled Modano in an exclusive interview with Sporting News Canada. “It’s a two-fold deal where he’s really able to keep pumping his legs and then all of a sudden pull it in and snap it at the same time.”

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Modano, of course, knows a thing or two about scoring highlight-reel goals. Modano is the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history, with 561 goals in a career that began with the Minnesota North Stars — remember them? — in 1989 and ended with the Red Wings in 2011.

From afar he watches Matthews and has no doubt he, too, will be one of the greatest American players to ever lace up the skates in the NHL.

“If you go down the league, there’s a lot of great players nowadays," Modano said. "I would say he’s definitely in the top 20 as of now. There’s some talented guys, but over time he probably will evolve into not only the best American and give Patrick Kane a run and all the stats for American-born guys. On the whole, given the city he’s playing in, Toronto, being American, I just think it’s got a formula for a pretty exciting career.”

Matthews scored 40 goals and won the Calder Trophy a year ago. This season, he has six goals already — four of the must-see variety.

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Two of those were similar in design and location on the ice. Against the Canadiens on Oct. 14, the first of his two goals that night came when he skated down the left wing before pulling the puck around the stick of defenseman Brandon Davidson to change the angle and shooting far glove on Carey Price all in one motion from the left faceoff circle.

Price was expecting the shot from closer to the half boards and was set in his stance, thinking Davidson had Matthews contained to the outside. But pulling the puck around Davidson’s stick and shooting in one motion left room on the far side of the net with Price off his angle.

Price, like all goalies, will let in some goals now and then, but rarely does he get beaten that badly.

Matthews scored a nearly identical goal against the Red Wings Oct. 18, this time shooting just below the left faceoff circle after pulling the puck towards the middle of the ice and shooting between the legs of defenseman Trevor Daley, using him as a screen. The shot beat Jimmy Howard to the short side.

The 20-year old Matthews admitted this tactic is done by design.

“You’re trying to kind of using him as a screen and shoot around him or through his feet to get it to the net,” Matthews said about his goal against the Red Wings. “It’s pretty tough for the goalie to read when it’s going through his feet like that to get on the (right) angle.”

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The thing is, though, that move is immensely difficult to pull off. If it were easy, more players would do it.

“He’s able to skate while shooting the puck,” Modano said when asked what he feels makes Matthews an elite scorer. “Some guys have to stop their skating, collect themselves, get balanced and then kind of drag the puck in and shoot. By that time either the puck is poked off your stick or you’re being checked and if you are able to get it off, it’s almost telegraphed because the goalie knows it’s coming.”

Modano, who has been spending time with his 3-year-old twins and 14-month-old since retiring in 2011 and indicated he is “interested in getting back into the game in some way, shape or form,” feels Matthews' skills are comparable to some of the all-time greats.

“Matthews’ ability to cross over, keep his legs pumping kind of like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, guys who can snap that puck hard, they’re still skating when they shoot," Modano explained. "If you go back to Joe Sakic, he was the guy who kind of evolved that snap shot. He was always moving his feet as he was shooting and those guys are the most elusive because goalies just feel like they’re skating. They’re not going to snap the puck and then all of a sudden they take a stride or a cross over and boom, they’re able to shoot the puck in the same time, and that’s where the goalies are shocked.”

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Blackhawks goaltender Anton Forsberg was left looking shocked on Oct. 9 when Matthews skated down the wing and fired a wrist shot from just inside the top of the right face-off circle in overtime, giving Toronto a 4-3 win. With the goalie seemingly square to the shot, Matthews put the puck just between Forsberg’s head and glove and just under the cross bar, about as perfect as can be delivered.

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Mike Babcock, who over the years has coached many of the game’s top players, including Modano in his final season with the Red Wings, was not ready to call Matthews the best shooter he’s coached, but had a hard time coming up with comparable players.

“For me, over my experience anyway, the guys I've coached — the centre icemen I've coached — don't really shoot the puck like that,” Babcock said. “I couldn't tell you that for sure. I just know he's a good player and he's getting better all the time.”

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