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Breakaways and shootout attempts – they are not as similar as one might think. Of course, they are both 1v1, goalie vs player. But from my own experience in the crease, I’ve always found breakaways in the game much harder to stop than shootout attempts.
And that got me thinking: Which NHL players are most feared on a breakaway? Again, not the shooting. Actual in-game situations where the player is relieved of any defensive pressure.
So I polled a group of current NHL goaltenders — with a combined experience of more than 2,400 games — to come up with a list of the top five breakaway artists in the league.
For me, the pieces are very different. Breakaways are instinctive. There is not much time for the player to think about what move to make. And there is the constant fear that a backchecker will catch up with us.
But the attempted shootings? Players have all the time in the world. They can formulate a plan in advance. Get a reading on the goalie. And finally, approach the net as fast as they want.
Or in the case of Carolina forward Andrei Svechnikov, as slowly as desired. The Hurricanes sniper is four for five in the 2022-23 NHL season and is 10-for-17 in his career. Still, Svechnikov received only one vote from the goalies I sampled.
Full disclosure: I have never faced a shootout in the NHL. However, I gave up my fair share of breakaway goals. And I managed, as a member of the New Jersey Devils, to stop Montreal Canadiens forward Tomáš Plekanec on the only penalty shot I had to face.
The rest of my breakaway and shootout experience came in the minors. But it still translates. I felt an element of control during the penalty shootout. I could set the pace for the player and match his speed. But in a gaming setting, I found it much harder to get out of my crease and be patient.
The main reason for this poll was to find out which NHL players make goaltenders nervous during a game. Because there is no greater moment than a clean breakaway.
Let’s take a look at the top five fumbles in the NHL — in random order — according to the goaltenders who face them each night.
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks
Kane’s hands are incredibly fast. He’s able to disguise the puck with his stickhandling, making his next move incredibly difficult for goaltenders to predict. Kane wasn’t on every goalkeeper’s list, but of those he did, he was near the top.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Kane has only converted 39.5% of shot attempts during his career. It’s still a respectable rating, but it’s below what you’d expect from the league’s best stickhandler.
So maybe his inclusion on this list makes sense. The goaltenders have all seen the videos of Kane handling a thousand pucks on the ice. And it’s intimidating.
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning
Kucherov is another example of a player who isn’t good at shooting – he’s only scored 12 of 41 attempts – but can finish breakaways. And the interrogated guards noticed it.
What sets Kucherov apart on breakaways is how he disguises the shot. It’s hard to read the blade: the goalkeepers can’t tell if he’s playing against or on the glove side. And he prefers to shoot in the bottom half of the net, most often just above the goalkeepers’ pads.
Kucherov’s quick release and accuracy make him dangerous. But he’s also not afraid to make a quick move and sink the puck five holes. Kucherov has layers to his breakaway game that keep the goalie guessing.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
I have direct experience with Barkov. We shared several training camps with the Florida Panthers. And I spent a few weeks on the NHL team roster during my two-year stint with the franchise. In neither case was I able to understand Barkov on a breakaway.
A few years later, it carried over to game action when I was playing for the Ottawa Senators, and Barkov roasted me on a clean look just inside the red line. So knowing that today’s NHL goaltenders believe Barkov is top of the fumble list gives me comfort.
It’s all about hands and smarts for Barkov. He can elevate the tight puck. His hands are world class. And it’s able to make adjustments on the fly. Barkov’s peripheral vision is one of the best I’ve ever seen. No wonder he also scored on 44.8% of shot attempts during his career.
Brayden Point, Lightning
The clip above is the quintessential Point breakaway lens. Dizzying speed. Divide the defense. Go alone on the goalkeeper from the top of the circle. Most of Point’s breakaways are created in a confined area, which means they come from the offensive zone.
And that’s exactly what makes him so hard to stop for a goalkeeper. The point attacks with such speed that it is difficult for the goalkeeper to match it.
Point is not a one-trick pony when it comes to the net. He prefers to make a gesture and bypass the goalkeeper. But Point isn’t afraid to shoot when he sees an opening either. He’s one of the most dangerous rushers in the NHL for good reason. And to think: The Lightning have two players on this list. No wonder they’ve won two of the last three Stanley Cups.
Connor McDavid, Oilers
No surprise here: the world’s greatest hockey player is also the NHL’s most feared breakaway artist. All the guards interviewed had it on their list. And most had the Oilers captain in the front row.
Everything about McDavid screams deadly on a breakaway. From his explosiveness to the speed with which he can move the puck from side to side, to the accuracy of his shot, McDavid is a nightmare for opposing goaltenders.
During his 537-game NHL career, McDavid scored on 46.2% of shootout attempts. But what really stands out is that the Edmonton center has 14 game-winning goals in overtime – many of which were scored in breakaways.
Simply put: McDavid is the NHL’s most feared player when alone with the puck.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Artemi Panarin just missed the cut, which is not surprising. He has converted 23 of 36 shootout attempts in his career – the NHL’s best among players with 20+ attempts. Nathan MacKinnon, David PastrnakAnd Nick Suzuki were all popular choices. Tagus Thompson stood out, as Chris Kreider And Auston Matthews. A surprising name to receive a vote? Sebastien Aho Carolina Hurricanes.
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