December 10, 2021

The Analysis: A deep look at Matthew Savoie’s game

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a top prospect who is pacing his league in scoring has a lot of impressive tools in his game.

But there’s certainly no shortage of them when it comes to Matthew Savoie of the Winnipeg ICE.

Savoie, who currently leads the Western Hockey League in scoring and is the key offensive fixture on the country’s most dominant junior team, has an embarrassment of riches when it comes the arsenal he can launch on an opponent.

And while he isn’t the projected No. 1 pick for the 2022 NHL Draft, Savoie has a lot of attributes that, if he continues his current trend, could enter him into that debate.

The Pedigree

Savoie has been on the radar in Western Canada since his Bantam days where, as a 12-year-old, he played up an age group on a team with his older brother Carter Savoie. He followed that up the following year by finishing second in league scoring in the CSSHL bantam (U15) prep league behind teammate Dylan Guenther and ahead of familiar names and fellow future NHL first round draft picks Logan Stankoven and Cole Sillinger.

While still being eligible for the U15 age group, Savoie then jumped directly into the top midget league (U18) where he one-upped Guenther to finish first in league scoring with 71 points (31 goals, 40 assists) in 31 games as a 14/15-year-old in a league with 18-year-old players. Savoie was taken with the No. 1 pick in the WHL Bantam Draft by the Winnipeg ICE, and he applied to be the first player in the league to gain exceptional status. Despite not receiving full approval for exceptional status, his next season was split evenly between the ICE and in midget, where he once again shredded the league to a tune of 2.36 points-per-game.

In 2020, he headed south to the USHL due to the threat of COVID pauses and shutdowns in Canada, and immediately impressed with 38 points (21 goals, 17 assists) in 34 games for the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

This season, Savoie has continued to terrorize opposing goaltenders north of the border, currently sitting first in WHL scoring with 41 points (14 goals, 27 points) in 25 games. As such, he’s helped Winnipeg to the top of the Canadian Hockey League.

The Game

Savoie has been among the premiere point producers in every league he’s been in — regardless of age — and what allows him to seamlessly transition from league to league is the holy ‘quadfecta’ of excellent foot-speed, relentless effort, proactivity of thought, and high level skill. I curated a handful of clips to demonstrate his abilities in each area while also highlighting some improvements needed and how his tools blend together into a full package.

The Pace

Savoie is an easy player for even the most novice of hockey fans to notice because he brings electrifying speed to all areas of the ice.

This clip does a great job in highlighting just how quick Savoie can be at full gallop. Importantly, it also shows his ability to maintain that open-ice pace through stickchecks as well as when the weak-side defender is closing in on him. Savoie’s limited size is often used as a knock against his projection, however the fearlessness he shows when dealing with physicality allows him to truly maximize his skating abilities. His foot-speed is not a show he puts on when there’s no one around him, but rather a weapon he utilizes to gain time and space. 

One of the tools Savoie utilizes the most to gain a pace advantage is his use of linear crossovers to be constantly accelerating.

In this clip, you can see him utilizing crossovers the entire way up the ice to push the opposition back and keep them guessing on his entry path. The added deception that linear crossovers add to an otherwise straight line up the ice is something the Nathan Mackinnons and Connor McDavids of the world utilize on a routine basis, and Savoie is already a master at incorporating it into his game. He barely moves more than five feet side to side and yet the Red Deer Rebels skater Kai Uchacz (No. 19) can only muster the most superficial of defence on the zone entry. 

Savoie’s exploitation of available space and ability to turn on an extra gear is another reason he’s so successful off the rush. Any mistakes or lackadaisical positioning from the opposition and he will be quick to take the puck to the higher danger area.

I love this clip because it shows just how special the extra gear is that Savoie has in his back pocket. He’s already carrying solid speed through the neutral zone, however as Savoie crosses the blue line and sees that the defenseman hasn’t shaded over enough to his side, he explodes back towards the middle of the ice with a singular strong cut. Lethbridge Hurricanes defender Chase Pauls (No. 3) takes a half second to survey for any trailer cutting through the middle and by the time he looks back, Savoie is already all over him.

The next clip shows more of the same as Savoie is quick to pounce on mistakes.

Savoie recognizes the turnover and transitions quicker than Calgary Hitmen blueliner Grayden Siepmann (No. 8), powering through the two defensemen for a scoring opportunity. 

I’m not sure that there is a more terrifying player in the WHL or this draft class with half a step. His ability to gain separation and get his hands free for a shot or deke is one of the primary reasons he’s so lethal on the scoresheet.    

The Hustle

Savoie’s ability to utilize his speed in the name of offense may be what gets him paid, but the way he utilizes his speed in pursuit of the puck is what will win him championships. He does not have an off switch, bringing the same intensity and desire to be a difference-maker in any situation and in all areas on the ice.

The first thing to notice in this clip is the score, as the game is already out of reach. One could be forgiven for coasting back knowing that you have a six-goal cushion in the third period, however there’s Savoie tracking back hard, harassing, and ultimately muscling Brandon Wheat Kings forward Nate Danielson (No. 29) off the puck on the penalty kill.

Savoie flashes an active and disruptive stick in the above clip, however in the next clip he really showcases his elite turnover creation abilities.  

You can see his eyes light up at the poor puck placement of Riley Fiddler-Schultz (No. 21) and he is quick as a flash to attack with a stick lift before gaining instant separation with his pace. 

This ability to separate the opposition from possession with a lift, strategic slash to the hands, or a lunging reach is truly one of Savoie’s defining abilities in both the defensive end and on the forecheck. I could have included a dozen more clips of him puck-jacking the opposition and turning it into quick-strike offense. There is no safe moment when he’s in your vicinity as his puck focus and superior stick skills are such a dangerous combination in creating turnovers.

This clip does a good job of reinforcing both his tracking ability as well as his disruptive stick.

At the beginning, Savoie works hard to get himself back into the play which allows him to be in perfect position to transition back up ice when the Wheat Kings turn the puck over. If he hasn’t tracked back and is further up ice, his spacing as a passing option is at odds with the pace of his linemate Zach Benson (No. 9); similar to how his other teammate Skyler Bruce (No. 11) is forced to hold up at the offensive blue line.

As the shift progresses, Savoie shows his trademark ability to get all up in the business of Brett Hyland (No. 7) and cleverly strip the puck with great timing and understated strength through his hands.

The Brain

While Savoie’s speed and effort level mean that he’s always in the thick of the action, it’s his processing ability that helps to separate him from his peers as a creator of offence.  

I love this clip as it shows just how much further ahead of his peers he is when it comes to reading coverage and reacting to mistakes. Jayden Grubbe (No. 9), a third round pick of the New York Rangers, is known for his defensive play and yet Savoie absolutely puts him into the blender in this sequence. First, he finds the soft spot in coverage for his own chance. Then, as he chases down the rebound and bobbles possession he has lighting quick reaction, both to side-step pressure and to find the open teammate in tight coverage.

These types of small area battles become more and more important at higher levels as the pace increases and available space shrinks. He is already so instinctual in traffic and you can see just how much damage he can create when given an inch thanks to his awareness and speed.

Savoie’s game-style and dynamism means that he draws a ton of attention to himself on any given shift and he really exploits that to his advantage by baiting defenders to him before slipping a quick pass to a teammate in the now vacant area the defenseman used to be covering.

In this clip, he freezes both the defender and goalie with his threat to shoot before cleanly sliding a pass for the backdoor opportunity.

While Savoie can bring the flash and dash, his game is also full of small impact moments that he makes look simple but actually carry a high degree of forethought and awareness.

In this clip, he receives a pass through the middle over while looking over his shoulder, however he still has the presence of mind to feel the oncoming pressure and slide a quick pass across his body. A very simple play, but one that I’d argue very few players at this level would make and it directly led to a goal from an innocuous neutral zone faceoff. 

There can be times when it feels like Savoie is playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers.

Look at how Savoie baits Lethbridge forward Justin Hall (No. 9) into pursuing a ‘loose’ puck before cleverly chipping it past him for an odd-man rush. If he picks up possession immediately Hall probably transitions into a defensive posture, but by dangling the puck out in the open, he entices the over-aggressive pursuit.

One other thing noticeable in this clip and few others in this deep dive is how adept Savoie is at handling passes in his feet. I cannot stress just how comfortable he is with the puck in his skates. Here’s a fun bonus clip of him kicking the puck back to the point before again cleanly receiving a pass in his feet and firing off a quick pass into space. 

The Hands

No conversation regarding Savoie’s skillset is ever complete without talking about his puckhandling abilities. He truly has no weakness when he has possession of the biscuit, as he demonstrates supreme control whether his hands are in tight or away from his body on either the forehand or backhand. He has such a great sense of the ideal area to hold the puck to maximize lanes while keeping it out of reach of opposition stick checks. 

In this clip, Savoie really flashes the breadth of his stick skills by adroitly corralling a bouncing puck in time to slip a smart, small area pass into the middle. Later, after receiving the puck back on the half wall, he shows excellent control and manipulation to attack the lane and protect the puck when the defender collapses on him.

This is an excellent example of why I’m not overly concerned with Savoie’s ability to handle increased physicality at the NHL level. The danger he possesses in his mitts and ability to mix in constant jukes, feigns, and hesitations forces the player covering him to be in protection mode. When the opposition is consistently on their back foot when defending, it’s tough to truly pin him down physically.  

Savoie has a Datsyuk-ian feel for space as he possesses an innate understanding of what areas on the ice are there for the taking and where he can place the puck to make a play even under extreme pressure. The old adage of being able to stickhandle inside a phone booth certainly applies to Savoie.

In this clip, he has four Regina Pats surrounding him and yet he has the sense to maneuver into the perfect area to release a shot from the most dangerous position he can get himself to. He understands that Ryker Evans (No. 41) has to continue to back up to guard the net-front player so he can continue to push that direction, and has the over-the-shoulder feel to know exactly when he has to release the puck before being stick-checked by the trailing Tanner Howe (No. 43).

That consistent ability to carry the puck in its ideal position is seen in the next clip as well

Savoie makes a nice inside out move on Red Deer defender and Minnesota Wild prospect Kyle Masters to gain a step, and protects the puck on his backhand until he clears Masters’ reach before bringing it back to the forehand at the last second to gain the best angle on net.

Another area where Savoie’s hands are used in great effect is in changing the attack angle before taking a shot on net. He is very comfortable using the curl and drag to get the goaltender slightly off angle just before release; something snipers like Auston Matthews employ to great effect.

You can see the stutter and hesitation before firing a seeing-eye goal in the below clip. Last second touches before a shot are a great weapon to throw off a goaltenders timing.

The Warts

Savoie is a top prospect in this draft for a reason and there isn’t a ton to fault in his game. With many ‘flashy’ players, the cracks start to show upon deeper investigation, however as I undertook this deep dive, I found myself appreciating his game more and more with each viewing.

With that being said, if there is one area Savoie could improve to unlock even more offence it’s in his execution.

It seems crazy to worry about the execution of the leading scorer in the league, however with the number of scoring chances he creates in a game I’d argue he should be even further ahead. He’s just not terribly efficient at converting chances. He has excellent velocity on his shot and he disguises his release, however too many of his shots end up in the chest or right to the pads of a goaltender. Additionally with his playmaking, he is so great at drawing the attention of the opposition before finding the open man, but too many of his high-danger passes are slightly off the mark either ahead of, or in the feet of, his teammates.

That imprecision is seen in the following clip.

It’s not an egregious error however if he hits teammate Conor Geekie (No. 28) on the tape in stride, he has a clean lane for a shot in the slot. Several above clips earlier in this deep dive are other examples of ‘Grade A’ chances that lack the finish to result in a goal.   

The Total Package

A lot of the clips I’ve shown so far focus on a skill or two in isolation, however the following clips do a good job of showing how he can impress in multiple ways within a single shift.

Here we see Savoie attack with speed and creating space with his hesitation and hands before protecting the puck and finding the open man after the defender does well to stick with him. Then as the shift continues, despite being constantly shadowed, he has the vision and play reading ability to make a clever one-touch pass to his open teammate streaking into the slot. This shift is full of so many subtle but key moments from Savoie to lead to a scoring chance.

When given more time and space on the power play, Savoie can really flex the multidimensionality of his offensive game and unleash his creativity and unpredictability to full force.

In this clip, Savoie gets possession four separate times in a similar area and on each foray to the net he tries something new. The creativity and flexibility in his decision-making is seen in each chance as he probes the defensive structure to find what’s available.

First, he sees Red Deer defenseman Blake Gustafson (No. 3) commit to a shot block with one knee down, leaving a shooting lane to the net on the blocker side. On the second attack, the far side defender is slow to get back to the net-front, leaving his teammate Cole Muir (No. 12) with separation. The third time the puck comes his way the pass is off target so he tracks it down and fires a quick pass below the goal line to triangulate a pass to the player in the slot. Lastly, he smartly takes a pass off his feet before dusting the puck into a position to fire a cross ice pass to the cutting Bruce (No. 11).

There may be a slight adjustment period at the NHL level as he gets used to the speed and physicality at five-on-five play but I just don’t see a world where he’s not an immediate powerplay asset the moment he steps into an NHL lineup.  

Finally we end with my favourite shift in his entire season so far as it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ‘Savoie Experience’ in the span of 15 seconds.

He shows blistering speed and effort to make up for his teammates mistake using his excellent stick skills to strip the attacker of the puck without taking a penalty. He then charges up back up ice, has the vision to spot the open man, manipulates space to create a passing lane on his backhand with his puckhandling ability, and the end result is a slightly imperfect pass in his teammates feet.

This one clip is the TLDR version of this deep dive.

The Projection

Savoie is without question one of the best talents available in this year’s draft. He does so many things at an elite level that it’s hard to see how he won’t continue to be successful at the NHL level.

Trying to find major flaws in his game feels contrived as he brings so much on the offensive side of the game while still showing the same effort, focus, and grit without the puck as well. As he develops, I expect his timing and finish will continue to improve and when looking at Savoie’s ceiling, I think it’s arguable that he has the highest offensive potential of any player, including Shane Wright.

Overall, he has the look of a top-line point producer and power play quarterback at the NHL level and I wouldn’t hesitate to take him in the top three.

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