If you were first introduced to hockey during the 1980s and 90s, you’re used to players boasting cannon-like slap shots and using them often. It was, for a long time, the preferred shot from the point for elite NHL defensemen and the weapon of choice of power forwards bursting down the wings.
But due to its relative inaccuracy, the increased pace of the sport and the improvisational reads defensemen have to make at the blue line, the slap shot is becoming nearly extinct.
Fear not, there are some practitioners of this method still living among us. Drew Doughty has scored all four of his goals with the clapper this season, while Dougie Hamilton and Teuvo Teravainen have each deposited four tallies off their slap shots as well. Despite the shot mostly going the way of the dinosaur, there’s still some value in using it.
As we examine some of its last practitioners, players and coaches from around the league may provide some insight into why the once-beloved howitzer is vanishing from the modern game.
Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin are the professors
Slap shots are a dying art. The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa calculated the decline of the slap shot from 2009-10 onward — the first season where shot data by type was readily available.
Shinzawa calculated that teams were taking 7.11 slap shots per game in 2009-10. By 2021-22, that number dropped to 3.73 shots per game. And by our calculations, NHL teams averaged 3.65 slap shots per game during the 2022-23 campaign.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is one of the last masters of the slap shot. Stamkos’s bomb is his calling card, which has been true since he was a teenager. People first took notice of Stamkos’s slap shot as a pre-teen after winning MVP at the venerated Quebec International Pee-Wee tournament, then scouts knew of this weapon when he starred for the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League.
This quality unsurprisingly transferred over to the professional level, too.
Stamkos winding up from inside the faceoff circle for an expertly-placed one-timer has become one of the defining silhouettes of his generation. You can practically envision Tampa Bay’s No. 91 waiting patiently for a feed before rocketing it into the top corner.
Stamkos led all NHL players in 2022-23 with 14 slap-shot goals, accounting for 41.4% of his total offense last season. Since the 2009-10 season onwards, he ranks second with 135 slap-shot goals, trailing only Alexander Ovechkin while being perpetually ranked within the top-five annually.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper believes the slap shot still holds value, particularly in special-teams scenarios.
"I guess if there was a class to be taught, he'd be one of the professors, there's no doubt," Cooper told Yahoo Sports. "The irony of the whole thing is it shouldn't be [dying out of the game], it's such a weapon to have especially on the power play. So when you have that threat of coming from both sides... I've been the benefactor to watch a lot of those go in the net.
"It's not as easy as it looks, what those guys can do, whether it's him or Ovechkin. It's impressive that they can put that much velocity on it and put it where they want it. He's as good as [anyone] who's ever done that."
With Stamkos and Ovechkin now entering the emeritus status of their careers, there's an open competition for the NHL's next Slap Shot King.
Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak appears to be the front-runner for heir apparent, as the 27-year-old ranks fourth in slap-shot goals since entering the league in 2014-15, trailing only Ovechkin, Stamkos and Shea Weber. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine, who ranks fourth over the last five seasons, will also be in the running, as will Buffalo Sabres sniper Tage Thompson, who is tied with Ovechkin for third with 12 slap-shot goals over the past two seasons.
For what it's worth, the top scoring rookies from a year ago — Wyatt Johnson and Matty Beniers — had one slap shot goal between their 48 combined goals. And while it's still the early days, of the 70 goals scored by rookies this season, Luke Hughes is the only freshman to beat a goalie by way of the clapper.
'The value of a quick release is higher than ever'
This isn’t a new revelation, but the game has certainly changed and evolved for many of the league’s veterans. The modern NHL is thought to be faster and more skill-oriented, with further emphasis on positional soundness over the big, booming open-ice hit.
"I think it's been happening. In terms of why, the value of a quick release is higher than ever,” Rielly told Yahoo Sports. “In my opinion, I'm more accurate with a wrist shot and it's easier to change your mind, or move, or be a bit more deceptive with a wrist shot as opposed to winding up and taking a big slapper."
So, is this largely because of the increased speed of the game?
"It's also preference. [Mark Giordano] likes to walk the line and take a slap shot. I like to have the puck on my forehand and not lift my stick off the ice too much, I want to be more deceptive with the puck and be able to move, it's a preference thing, too."
There may be a correlation between shot speed and accuracy. NHL Edge data revealed that Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim is the only player with two shots or more topping 100 miles per hour this season and there’s certainly more emphasis on shot placement rather than outright velocity in this era.
Flames defenseman Chris Tanev broke into the league as a defensive specialist during the 2010-11 NHL season and could reach the 800-game milestone this season. Tanev is perpetually among the NHL’s leaders in blocked shots and understands the importance of getting into shooting lanes as a defender. The 34-year-old agreed that the increased speed of the game is a factor in shot selection.
"I think you're pretty right on. Guys are taking less slap shots for sure," Tanev told Yahoo Sports. "I think it's maybe the quickness, guys are so good at getting in lanes, trying to get shots off as quick as possible. Slap shots always take a little longer to get off."
Canucks defenseman Tyler Myers won the Calder Trophy in 2009-10, in large part due to the effectiveness of his slap shot, scoring four of his 11 goals during his award-winning season due to his booming windup. But like Tanev, he has noticed a change in strategy in recent years.
"I think a big part of today's game is getting the puck to the net and you can get the puck to the net quicker with wristers," Myers told Yahoo Sports. "The way the teams are defending, it's hard to get a slap shot off, guys are closing on you very quickly, it's a fast game. A lot of the mindset is getting pucks to the net and I think the best way is quickly is probably more wristers."
The modern defenseman is avoiding the slap shot
Quinn Hughes is the embodiment of the modern defenseman in many ways. Hughes would be considered typically undersized for a blueliner as recently as a decade ago, but his all-world skating ability and lateral navigation are qualities that are the envy of the league. Hughes is tied for the NHL scoring lead with 26 points and he’s scored off his slap shot just seven times since becoming an NHL mainstay during the 2019-20 season.
"I think it's just that you don't have time to tee it up. It's hard," Hughes told Yahoo Sports. "Walking the blue line and you have to leave it there and there's not a lot of time for that so a lot of guys are trying to get it through screens."
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) November 9, 2023
Vancouver’s captain will always be an offensive threat because he can turn defense into offense through his tremendous skating ability and he doesn’t have to worry about getting crushed into the boards because his edge work is terrific and a missed hit leads to an instant 5-on-4. The leading Norris candidate is dominating opponents because his speed and vision unlocks his playmaking and he’s not going to get overpowered by stronger forwards.
Hughes, Cale Makar and Adam Fox are widely considered the leaders of the next generation of NHL defensemen, all lauded for their speed, playmaking and defensive decision-making. Will the slap shot eventually die out as the next generations of aspiring NHL players no longer view it as a viable option?
That appears to be the direction things are going based on the data, leaving the preservation of the art form to a shrinking collection of shooters that will see the grand masters of the craft skate off into the sunset in the not too distant future.