The phrase “copycat league” is used, abused, and has reached cliche status. It’s akin to saying, “it’s tough to win in this league.” As if there’s a league where wins come easy. But the roster construction of the final four teams in the NHL playoffs can and should send a clear message to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s a message the Penguins new hockey ops managers, president of hockey operations Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall, already know, but now they have loud and clear confirmation. The message is more affirmation than a revelation: Size and toughness, beyond grittiness, are required.
It’s no longer optional to have big players with some ill-intent who use their size in the dirty areas. They are now 100% necessary.
In addition to speed, skill, and a structured system, teams need a few big bodies—preferably big bodies who also have offensive talent, skating ability and a willingness to follow instructions.
The New York Islanders are a heavy team with a little bit of talent, a bit of speed, and lots of structure. The Vegas Golden Knights are a thundering herd with speed, snarl, and structure. Montreal has lots of structure and size to fulfill its structure.
Stick tap to 93-7 the Fan’s Andrew Filliponi for looking this up. Quick research shows the Pittsburgh Penguins are the second lightest team in the NHL. Vegas, Tampa Bay, and the New York Islanders are the first, second, and third heaviest teams, respectively.
If one person calls you a horse, ignore it. If two people call you a horse, consider it. If three people call you a horse, buy a saddle.
One heavy team is a coincidence. When the top three heavy teams are still playing, it’s a trend with which the Pittsburgh Penguins must deal.
The Montreal Canadiens are the seventh heaviest team in the NHL.
“(Physicality) is something to think about right now as the standard (for obstruction penalties) has gone up, in terms of what is and what isn’t a penalty since the playoffs started,” Penguins GM Ron Hextall said in his media availability after the Penguins season. “And it’s something that you can’t just ignore. But I think the biggest thing in the playoffs is you’ve got to have a team that’s willing to play through it…”
Of course, the Tampa Bay Lightning checks all of the boxes. They are fast, skilled, and don’t sleep on their size, too. Blake Coleman, Patrick Maroon, and Barclay Goodrow dot their bottom-six. They are three players who enjoy inflicting bruises on their opponents and chipping in a few goals.
They are also three players for whom the Pittsburgh Penguins would not have an answer, just as the Penguins have struggled to answer the New York Islanders’ fourth line with Matt Martin, Casey Czikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, who were probably the Islanders’ best line against the Penguins in the Round One series.
If the Islanders’ fourth line wasn’t the best, then it was the second line led by Brock Nelson–another big body with talent. Nelson rolls at 6-foot-4, 212 pounds. Goodrow is 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. Maroon checks in at a svelte 6-foot-3, 225 pounds of jam.
The Penguins have 6-foot-3 Jeff Carter, who knows how to use his size, but Carter is not a physical player. The most physical Penguins forwards are Brandon Tanev, who fits the mold but is small at just 180-pounds, and Jason Zucker, 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, is also slight in the context of physical players.
In other words, yes, the Penguins have grit. They lack size. And adding a bit of snarl wouldn’t hurt, either.
Each of the four remaining teams possesses those qualities. From the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay Lightning, each Stanley Cup winner since the 2017 Penguins has possessed size, weight, and toughness.
More specifically, those Capitals, Islanders, and Montreal Canadiens also eliminated the Penguins along the way. Those teams physically asserted themselves to varying degrees, frustrated the Penguins by limiting offensive options, won net-front battles, and beat the Penguins.
Though we stand by any assertion that the Penguins outplayed the New York Islanders in 2021, even with solid goaltending, could the Penguins have beaten the Islanders, Bruins, Montreal, AND Vegas/Tampa Bay in succession?
Would there have been anything left of the Penguins by the semi-finals?
The fast, talented teams with the top NHL scorers all lost; the bigger and more physical teams with defensive structure (and goaltending) are still playing. In addition to losing the goaltending battle in a significant way, if the Penguins won a few more net-front battles–as defenseman Marcus Pettersson alluded in his locker clean-out day interview–the series could have been different, too.
With some irony, the Penguins need some jam and physicality on their blue line, and Pettersson’s spot is a prime place to start.
Yes, Hextall’s stated goal is to add some beef, but based on the playoffs’ progression, it’s no longer optional or an “if,” but “how much.”
Now that the big teams can skate, too, they lessen the Penguins’ biggest advantage. At the same time, the Penguins’ size deficiency simultaneously enhances their opponent’s advantages (good gosh, I’ve been writing that sentence every summer since 2018 and taking piles of criticism for it. I suspect it is less controversial now).
Just in case Hextall was hedging his bet with size and physicality, the NHL message from the playoffs should arrive loud and clear: MORE. A LOT MORE.