(images via thehockeynews.com)
by Juliana Nikac
Now more than ever, the NHL has become a game of speed. After the Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup with four fast lines and domination of possession with the puck, teams wanted to copy them to make it harder for the Penguins to compete. Teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes, the Edmonton Oilers, the Montreal Canadiens, and the New York Rangers have taken on this method, and it’s become a problem for the entire league.
The Hurricanes have Jeff Skinner, who can turn on the wheels at any time and has some of the best hands in the league. They also are equipped with skaters such as Sebastian Aho, the 19-year-old from Finland, defenseman Justin Faulk, the newcomer Teuvo Teravainen, and the free-agent Viktor Stalberg. Their record may not show it, but they’ve been much more successful with the addition of the two Finnish players in their lineup, as well as with Stalberg’s penalty killing and speed that can just blow anyone away.
The Edmonton Oilers have become a team that relies on speed, as well. Of course, they have Connor McDavid, who may be the best skater the National Hockey League has ever had. His domination with the puck and ability to fight off anyone who tries to check him off the puck is incredible. Obviously, everyone remembers this goal against Columbus in the game that McDavid returned from injury. No one dekes through basically an entire line like McDavid can. Along with McDavid, the Oilers drafted Jesse Puljujarvi who isn’t slow by any means, and they added Milan Lucic in free agency this offseason, who can skate. Although they traded Taylor Hall in the offseason, people forget that Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaitl are still on the team.
We obviously know the Montreal Canadiens are good with Carey Price in net. But the addition of Alexander Radulov has proved to be a steal for the Habs this season. Alongside Alex Galchenyuk, Radulov has been impressive to start his return to the NHL. His speed has become a problem for most of the league, and it’s hard enough to stop one Russian speedster, nevermind two on the same line.
And of course, the New York Rangers have had a huge impact with their speed so far this season. GM Jeff Gorton realized the Rangers needed to be a faster team with more skill after an embarrassing first-round knock by the Penguins, and he made that happen in the offseason. By signing Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri in the free agent frenzy, the team already got younger and quicker. On top of that, the Rangers traded Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad, who is basically Brassard, but younger and can defend better. Also, the Rangers won the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes, adding even more speed to the roster. The progress has shown so far this season, and it’s working out great for them.
You can also make an argument that the Columbus Blue Jackets have become a quicker team as well. Trading for Brandon Saad in the 2015 offseason was a huge addition for the Jackets, and keeping Zach Werenski after training camp. The New Jersey Devils immediately became a faster team by stealing Taylor Hall from Edmonton. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not only young, but they’re fast with players such as William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews. The Tampa Bay Lightning continue to be a force in league with players such as Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and obviously Steven Stamkos, even though he’s out for a lot of the season.
The speed of others teams is becoming more of an issue for hard-hitting, heavy teams such as the Los Angeles Kings, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Boston Bruins. These teams are still difficult to play against, but when they play teams with speed, they don’t have a chance to make their checks and hard hits like they want to when players deke their way around them, and it’s proving in their play in the last few seasons. The Kings, Ducks, and Flyers were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs last season, and the Bruins haven’t made the playoffs since 2014. Faster, more skilled teams are continuing to burn them.
However, before 2015, the teams that made the playoffs used to be heavy-hitting, grinding teams like the four listed above. The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, the Ducks made the conference finals in 2014, the Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and made the finals in 2013, and the Flyers made the finals in 2010. NHL teams used to have gritty style that these teams had, but never to the same degree, and other teams all wanted to be on the same level as, say, the Bruins and the Kings. However, the league has really switched to more of a fast-paced style instead of pushing, shoving, and fighting.
Now, a lot of fans who watch the NHL have a tough time figuring out the difference between a power forward and a fast skater, because there’s a difference. Fast skaters are able to deke around other players and avoid hits while skating using their acceleration and speed. Power forwards are able to withstand the physicality someone puts on them. They’re able to use their size and strength to out-muscle anyone in their way as they make their way toward the puck after they chip it into the offensive zone, or drive towards the net. While power forwards typically aren’t as quick on their feet as the fast skaters of the NHL, they’re still about to use their long strides and muscle in their body to accelerate to where they want to go, while pushing anyone that might be trying to defend them off.
A player that most consider to be a power forward in the league is Rick Nash of the New York Rangers. Standing tall at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, Nash is the type of player that drive towards the net using his speed, and fights defenders off using his strength. This goal against Carolina last season is a prime example of how Nash uses his strength to fight his way through pressure.
As you watch the goal, pay attention to how he fights off Carolina defender Brett Pesce by leaning his upper body back against Pesce, resisting his check. He then uses his core strength to push himself upright so he can get the shot on net, and Nash ends up scoring on a top right corner wrist shot.
Not only is he strong and can resist any defender putting pressure on him, but he can skate. He uses his lower body strength to plow past other skaters. A great example of his speed shows in this empty net goal against Boston last season.
Notice how Nash pays attention to the puck bounding over David Krejci’s stick. Once he realizes this, he turns on the wheels since Krejci doesn’t know he’s coming behind him. Nash flies past the Bruin with his strength and speed, getting to the puck first to score the empty-netter for New York.
Other power forwards in the NHL, some would say, are players such as Chris Kreider, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares, Milan Lucic, Jack Eichel, and Marian Hossa. Some would argue that Sidney Crosby can also be considered a power forward, due to his strength and skill. He has the ability to push players off of him while he’s moving the puck and his body. All in all, each of these players have characteristics in their game that concludes they are power forwards.
In a way, Connor McDavid can also be considered a power forward with his size. Everyone’s so focused on how fast he is that they forget he’s 6’1”. He’s only 190 pounds, but he can fight players off left and right while the puck is on his stick, like it always is when he’s on the ice. However, because McDavid is so fast, no one can stop him no matter what. One simply cannot stop Connor McDavid, let’s all be honest with ourselves.
So we look at the teams in the NHL, and you ask yourself the question, “Well, which teams are the fastest in the league?” As mentioned above: the Penguins, the Rangers, and the Oilers. Some would even make the argument that the Maple Leafs are a quick team as well, due to some of their younger players. The Blue Jackets have been impressive with their speed, as well. So far this season, others have had a particularly rough time playing against the Rangers, even though their play has fallen as of late due to a couple of key injuries with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. They still lead the league in goals per game (3.64) , and have the best goal differential (+28). We obviously know the deal with the Penguins, and the Oilers are truly only fast when Connor McDavid is on the ice.
The entire league is learning how to adapt to these fast teams, and are making adjustments. Another factor of the league growing into a game reliant on speed is how young the NHL has become. There are a large number of rookies in the league this season, way more than there has been in the past. We’ve seen the change with teams after the Penguins won the Cup last season, and even more teams want to copy the model they observed from the Pens’ playoff run. Maybe in a couple of seasons the league will have a different style of play. Right now, however, the style of the National Hockey League is speed. And we have to accept it.