The death of the NHL shot: Why players are abandoning hockey’s signature offensive weapon
In the 80s and 90s, on the occasions when Ray Ferraro roamed the ice at the same time as Al Iafrate, the forward was always on high alert. At any moment, Iafrate was a threat to bomb a slap shot that could land on Ferraro’s helmet, not to mention whistle past the defenseless goaltender.
“It was high. Or low And tough,” recalls Ferraro, now an ESPN analyst. “He was erratic enough that it scared everybody.”
Things have changed.
The timer remains a critical offensive tool. Goalies don’t like following a cross-ice pass, struggling to see a shot through traffic, and getting in front of a rocket.
The autonomous slap, however, has become a fossil. The maneuver, once so signature of hockey that it is the title of the sport’s definitive movie, is underway.
“It’s like an old skate stop that goalies used to do,” Ferraro says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Because? The Athletic brought that question to players, coaches and analysts.
No time to breathe
The per-game drop in slap shots has been consistent over this stretch:
The league doesn’t just explode into the slap category. But if they’ve remained roughly static, the decline in stand-alone slap shots would be even more drastic.
It’s somewhat ironic that the league started tracking shooting types the same season Chicago won the first of its three most recent Stanley Cup championships. You could argue that the Blackhawks started the caffeinated, skill-driven style of today’s NHL. It may be that as most of their opponents were making the transition to modern hockey, the Blackhawks were using their speed and touch to rip off uncontested slap shots.
Thirteen seasons later, Keith, Brent Seabrook (91 slaps) and Dustin Byfuglien (89) probably wouldn’t have time to hit the rafters and let their cleats fly. By the time they completed their backswings, an opponent would have filled the shot lane or closed to avoid the shot altogether.
“Part of the evolution of the game is the pressure on the puck,” he says Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. “Most teams are playing some kind of pressure format or pressure system. Generally, that will limit the time and space on the puck carrier. So, in many cases, there may not be an opportunity to take time for a big liquidation and a blue line bomb, for example.”
The burst of speed, in other words, has collided with training to reduce the opportunity for shot generation. Coaches have made reloading, closing on the puck and occupying shooting lanes non-negotiable. How the game’s turbo pace has affected the game away from the puck isn’t something Ferraro initially anticipated.
“When the speed of the game started to pick up and they changed the scrimmage rules and all that, I thought I was going to open up the offense,” Ferraro says. “What I didn’t realize was how big of an advantage it was going to be for the defense, how much the speed of the game would take away from the offense’s time. I didn’t see that. I was just thinking more goals, more plays. But you have to think, “Well, if they don’t have the puck, they can still skate really fast.”
Keith excelled in the quick lock and load technique of releasing slap shots. There were times when he had enough steam behind his shot without a full backswing.
Most players, however, need more time to start their windup and generate enough power to make it worth a slap. The freedom to do so is not an abundant resource.
“They defend so quickly that you don’t have as much time to let the big slapper go,” he says. Bruins coach Jim Montgomery. “People are on top of you. So you’ve got to be able to release the pucks quicker. Also, to beat goalies when they’re moving east to west, you can’t beat them if you take it and release a big slapper. You have to try to find holes. That’s why you see a lot of pucks go back and forth under the arms. Because goalies can’t get in the square.”
In the old days, when wood was still the preferred material for hockey sticks, only the exceptional could master the art of sticking precise pushers. The telephone poles wielded by the players weren’t exactly precision instruments.
“If you were 35 feet away, you couldn’t score on a wrist shot unless you were Brett Hull. Or someone of that nature. You just can’t,” Ferraro says. “Because they all use wooden poles or two-piece poles.”
The revolution in stick technology has made the wrist shot, in some ways, far more dangerous than the slap shot. Composite poles are lighter than wood. The trend is towards lightweight poles with flexible, flexible shafts. Every NHL player has a custom curve straight from the factory. Quarterbacks regularly load their sticks and lower the bar.
“Now, technology allows guys to score from 30 feet,” Ferraro says. “You still have to get it for the goalkeepers, who are bigger and better. But you can really score. You can put it up there under the bar. When you shot with a wooden stick, you couldn’t do that. It was a waste of time.”
It’s not just a matter of technology. More and more NHL players are working with skills coaches, both during the season and in the summer. These instructors make a living by identifying niches.
Performance coach Darryl Belfry, for example, counts Patrick Kane i Austin Matthews among their customers. Both strikers thrive on deception with their wrist shots. This deception is not possible with a slap.
“When you slap, you can’t change the angle of the shot,” the Bruins center says. Charlie Coyle, who has zero slappers on 27 shots in 16 games in 2022-23. “When you take a wrist shot or a snapshot, you can drag it. You can pull it in. You can pull it out. A slap, it’s just there. It’s there in the same line, and you’re just trying to feed it . You’re not changing the angle. A lot of times the goalie comes out, he’s getting big for it. It doesn’t matter how fast he is. He’s usually just going to hit it unless you’re so accurate with your shot. He knows it’s coming “.
It used to be an anomaly for the goalkeeper to know the handle of every opposing shooter. Now, puck-stopping scouts have advanced to the point where goaltenders know whether a forward uses black or white tape, what kind of curve he has and the location of his preferred shot. A direct slap, then, has become a simple thing to stop.
“Goalies are so good at reading it with the stick,” says the Pittsburgh forward Danton Heinen, who has zero slapshots in 16 games. “If there is a little time and they see you finish, they can read it many times and see where it goes. The faster you remove it, the more you can disguise it. Maybe that’s what guys are looking for the most.”
Through the traffic
The threat of a screaming slap shot off the posts of Iafrate or Al MacInnis or Shea Weber used to send opponents running for safe ice. But now, even a 100-mile-per-hour chip stomps on a shin without leaving a mark. Almost everyone wears a visor. Blocking shots has become safer.
A better team aligns with the philosophy of the area. It’s no longer good enough to have a player occupying a shooting lane. Teams emphasize multiple perimeter defenses, especially those that practice zone defense.
“There are layers of defense,” says Sullivan. “There are layers of shot blocks. Sometimes the best play is just a quick release that allows you to get the puck down to the net before those layers go into place to block shots and make it that much harder to get to The net.
In fact, a whimsical slap might even turn into a counter opportunity. Think of a forward closing in on a shooter and getting a shin in front of a slap shot. If he blocks the puck well, his momentum could be a springboard to a breakout opportunity.
So this way, most shooters will select the accuracy and control of a wrist shot. Because they have become good goalkeepers, scoring a goal is not always the reason for a shot from distance.
“These quick pushers are the new way to get shots,” says the Bruins defenseman Hampus Lindholm. “You want to look to see who’s in front before you shoot. Sometimes when I’m doing slap shots, it’s not so easy to look up.”
After 16 games, Lightning bolt star center Steven Stamkos has 28 hits, two out Mika Zibanejadthe league’s leading pace. Stamkos has scored on four of those slappers. All four were through a single time. None was a direct slap.
Then the days of kids slapping each other at the entrance may be over. It’s pretty much a waste of time.
“They’ll do it because it looks fun and it’s cool. They will learn it themselves,” Ferraro says of the young players. “But there’s no reason, really, to teach that.”
(Top photo by Mika Zibanejad: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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