SIMMONS SAYS: Practice, and more practice, turns slap shot into a potent new weapon for Auston Matthews

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As a rookie, Auston Matthews scored no goals using a slap shot.

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In his second and third NHL seasons, he combined to score just three with the big windup.

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And even back then, as he led the NHL in even-strength goal-scoring, he was best known for his quick delivery, his impossible to detect off-angle shots and the unusual manner in which he released the puck.

Now, he’s taken his masterful shooting to an entirely new level.

Matthews has scored seven slap-shot goals this season according to NHL statistics, and that official number might be thin. Sportlogiq, the ultimate statistics provider in hockey, had him with14 one-timer goals through his first 50 games.

Matthews was scoring at 72-goal pace heading into Saturday night’s game against Anaheim and, when he scored 60 goals two seasons back, he did so with only six utilizing a slap shot.

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The Matthews numbers now seem almost illogical for a Maple Leafs franchise that has not produced many 50-goal scorers in its history.

Fifty then became 60 in Matthews’ Hart Trophy-winning season of 2022. And 60 is possibly becoming 70, although it still seems so far away — he would need 25 goals in 31 games to get there — yet it is somehow possible.

And this is because Matthews is making Matthews better. The one-timer slap shot isn’t something necessarily being taught to him, or being pushed by the coaching staff. He understands his gift and all that it entrails and now works on his shooting before practice, after practice, during practice, with the results quite evident, so much of it in concert with winger Mitch Marner, with Matthews on his way to the highest goal-scoring season in more than 30 years.

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And suddenly the slap shot is a shot of more than consequence.

THIS AND THAT

Matthews is scoring all of these slapshot goals on a Leafs team that takes the fewest slappers in the NHL … Strange aspect for the Leafs over the final 30 games. The better they play, the more challenging their opening round playoff series may be. If the Leafs play well and finish third in the Atlantic Division, they will likely play Florida Panthers in Round 1. The Panthers are among my favourites to win the Stanley Cup. If the Leafs get overtaken by Tampa Bay for third place in the Atlantic, they’ll drop to a wild-card spot, which would have them face one of Boston, Florida or the New York Rangers in Round 1. Boston and New York are better matchups for the Leafs than the Panthers happen to be. Not that they can control any of that … Finishing first in the West really matters, because the wild-card teams will be much weaker than those in the 2-3 playoff spots. The 7-8 spots in the Western Conference might be the only soft playoff landings for anyone this season … Connor McDavid has played himself into a crowded Hart Trophy conversation that includes Nathan Mac­Kinnon, Nikita Kucherov, Matthews, David Pastrnak, Artemi Panarin, Sam Reinhart, Quinn Hughes and, if Pittsburgh Penguins make the playoffs, Sidney Crosby. And how do you whittle down that list of nine to five on a ballot and eventually three finalists? … My final three, as of mid-February, would be MacKinnon, McDavid and Kucherov … It’s somewhat easier to vote for the Norris Trophy as best defenceman. It’s either Cale Makar or Hughes. And then you figure out the rest. Thatcher Demko of Vancouver would likely be the Vezina Trophy favourite at this point. And while everybody is pointing to Rick Tocchet as coach of the year with the Canucks, my pick would be John Tortorella, who has done miracles with the Philadelphia Flyers … Leafs captain John Tavares had 26 points in his first 26 games of the season, but just 14 in the past 25 … Department of Dumb: There were no NBA games played on Friday night, this being All-Star Weekend. The NHL failed to take advantage of the opening on U.S. television with only one game, Carolina at Arizona, on its schedule … Martin Jones is the only player on the Leafs roster to have won the Stanley Cup. He was the backup goalie on the 2014 Los Angeles Kings. And it’s entirely possible he’ll be the No. 3 goalie for Toronto come playoff time, with Joseph Woll and Ilya Samsonov expected to play ahead of him … Jason Botterill, former Sabres general managere, former Pittsburgh assistant and current Seattle assistant GM, is an inside hockey favourite to replace the fired Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Other candidates include Chris MacFarland from Colorado and Mathieu Darche in Tampa Bay. And why is it no seems to mention Mike Futa for these jobs when he used to get rumoured for every opening … This doesn’t happen often: NBA star Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns walked into the all-star skills competition in Indianapolis on Saturday wearing a No. 19 Detroit Red Wings jersey with the name ‘Yzerman’ on the back.

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HEAR AND THERE

This is how the NBA and the NHL perpetually differ: As the trade deadline approached in the NBA, the owner of the Golden State Warriors called the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers to inquire about the possibility of LeBron James playing alongside Steph Curry in San Francisco. The NBA is forever about its stars. As the trade deadline in the NHL approached, no one is calling Edmonton to check on McDavid or Colorado to check on MacKinnon, but everyone is wondering what teams Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev will be playing for in March … Somebody should be making calls on Anaheim’s Frank Vatrano as the deadline approaches. I would be … If I were voting for the one Leafs player to attack an empty-net goal-scorer, the last player on my ballot would have been Morgan Rielly … The NBA has this right: A trade deadline in February makes more sense than an NHL trade deadline almost one month later in March … For those who don’t think much of Sheldon Keefe as an NHL coach, and there are many, consider Toronto’s 4-1 win over St. Louis on Tuesday night to be textbook quality coaching. It may have been the most complete coaching night of his career … Keefe continues to talk up Tyler Bertuzzi and all that he can do for the Leafs. Which is nice. But if I’m GM Brad Treliving, I’m considering buying and selling at the trade deadline. Buying defensive help: Seeing if you can’t turn Bertuzzi into an asset from another club … There have been better players on the Raptors than Thad Young over the years. Not sure there have been better people or better professionals … With Joel Embiid out for an undisclosed period of time, he has been dropped from the list of NBA scoring leaders. That pushes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Canada’s athlete of the year, into second place in NBA scoring behind Dallas’ Luka Doncic … Gilgeous-Alexander remains an MVP candidate, albeit a semi-longshot, behind Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic, Jalen Brunson, Donovan Mitchell and Giannis Antetokounmpo … This is the NBA all-star weekend in Indianapolis, which housed one of my favourite Super Bowls. The reason: It was the rare Super Bowl that felt like a Grey Cup.

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SCENE AND HEARD

Almost all the wannabe-GMs picking Team Canada rosters for the Winter Olympics of 2026 keep missing one point: The Olympics are almost two full seasons away. There’s room for all kinds of development from young Canadian players such as the 21-and-unders, Quinton Byfield, Wyatt Johnston, Mason McTavish and obviously Connor Bedard … Two players who aren’t getting much Olympic mention but should: Travis Konecny of Philadelphia and Carter Verhaeghe of Florida. Both are prototypical Canadian wingers and both would be on my team … If Jon Cooper is the coach of Team Canada, and he wants to be, you can bet he’ll insist on Anthony Cirelli on his roster as a fourth-line player … It never made sense to me that major junior hockey players were deemed ineligible to get American college scholarships and play NCAA hockey. But it makes less sense now with football and basketball players being paid serious money to play college sports that junior hockey players remain banned from the NCAA for apparently being professional … Threough the first 12 games of the season, former first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky had one goal and one assist in Montreal and had everyone talking bust in his second season. But in his past 12 games, the 19-year-old has eight goals and six assists … I suspect watching NBA coverage on ESPN is a lot like watching NHL coverage on TSN. On TSN, it’s Leafs, Leafs and more Leafs. On ESPN, it’s Lakers, Warriors, Knicks, then more Lakers, Warriors, Knicks … Watching the Super Bowl parade in Kansas City and hearing the shooting, seeing people frantic, reminded me in a lesser way of the 2019 Raptors championship celebration at Nathan Phillips Square. Once shots were fired in Toronto, there was panic everywhere. People just started running, not certain where they were running. That feeling of fear never leaves you. I remember quite well being at the Sheraton Hotel, across from City Hall, with emergency triage facilities having been set up in the lobby and frightened children were still crying an hour after the parade was over.

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AND ANOTHER THING

These are the stories of every spring training: Player A arrives at camp (shouldn’t it be a story if he doesn’t arrive?). Player B throws a pitching session and impresses everyone. Player C vows he’s in the best shape of his life and ready to leave last year’s lousy season behind. Rinse and repeat. See you in late-March when it all begins to matter … When Marcus Semien was in Toronto last September, he told me the 2021 Blue Jays were the best team he’d ever played on. That team missed the playoffs by a game. That was six weeks before Semien’s Texas Rangers went on to win the World Series … It is quite possible the Blue Jays will have the best defensive outfield and the worst offensive outfield in baseball this season with the same people … So which signings are you most excited by? Daniel Vogelbach? Eduardo Escobar? Isiah Kiner-Falefa? After losing out on Shohei Ohtani, the Blue Jays apparently spent the off-season shopping at Woolco … What an amazing time this is for women’s sport. In Canada, the PWHL sells out at Scotiabank Arena and the scene Friday night was nothing short of remarkable. In the U.S., Caitlin Clark has become the singular star in American college basketball. Like no one who has ever starred before in college ball after shattering the women’s career scoring record last week. Some joke, sort of, that Clark will have to take a paycut to move from college to the WNBA next season … Patrick Mahomes has won three Super Bowls in six years of starting in Kansas City, seven years of playing in the NFL. Wayne Gretzky won his third title in his eighth NHL season. It took Michael Jordan nine years to win three NBA titles … The Chiefs will play for three in a row next season, which no team has done since Super Bowls began. No NHL team has won three in a row since the New York Islanders of 1983. The most recent baseball team to three-peat? The New York Yankees, winning their third in succession in 2000. The Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant fame, won three in a row ending in 2002. And that’s what the Chiefs are up against … Ken Dryden, under unique circumstances, won three Stanley Cups in his first five NHL seasons. Dryden played just eight years in Montreal, winning six Cups … With 258 career wins, Andy Reid ranks fourth in career NFL coaching victories. And the closest to him among active coaches is Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, who is 85 wins (or give or take eight good seasons) behind him … When you think Winnipeg Blue Bombers history you instantly think of Kenny Ploen. The way I think of Russ Jackson as an Ottawa Rough Rider or Ron Lancaster with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The names and faces of franchises forever. Ploen passed away at the age of 88 the other day, one of true stalwarts of Canadian football … Happy birthday to Michael Jordan (61), Dick Duff (88), Jimmy Rutherford (75), Alex Mogilny (55), Luc Robitaille (58), John Mayberry (75), Lindy Ruff (64), Adam Fox (26), Darren Pang (60), Kris King (58), Alex Rios (43) and Yoko Ono (91) … And hey, whatever became of Dustin McGowan?

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