Not long ago, speed was just one attribute for a potential hockey player. As the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins hogged the Stanely Cup from 2015 to 2017, using speed as a weapon, the NHL adjusted. Within the blink of an eye, teams stockpiled younger and faster players, and the league changed. Speed was no longer one potential asset, it was a required asset.
But then the Washington Capitals, a team not known for speed, who relied on aged defenseman Brooks Orpik, won the Stanley Cup. Now, a lot of assumptions are being questioned. And upgraded to 2.0 status.
If Washington can hoist the Cup, is speed still the primary component for building a championship team? The answer lies in how you define speed. In 2017-18, the Penguins were no longer able to skate rings around Washington. The Penguins were a faster team, but the Capitals’ increased prominence of young, speedy wingers Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, and Devante Smith-Pelly diminished the Penguins advantage. Wilson and Smith-Pelly are also physical players.
Washington closed the speed gap with their chief rival, the Penguins. The emergence of young speed mixed with the few players Washington already had with aggressive speed and the Capitals were no longer a slower, physical team.
The minimum level of speed needed to win, and play, in the NHL has increased significantly, but speed is not the primary weapon some believed it would become after the Penguins dominant 2016 Stanley Cup run. In a 200-foot by 85-foot rink, space is a premium, and if the speed differential is small, teams must find other ways to create space and be successful.
And therein lies the Capitals formula for success: Combining speed with physicality (Skill is an assumed prerequisite for any Cup winner).
Since 2009, only four teams have won the Stanley Cup: Washington, the Penguins, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The Penguins and Chicago used similar tactics of speed, skill, and system to win. Both teams also absorbed a significant amount of punishment from larger teams.
Los Angeles was one of the larger teams who punished opponents. The 2018 Capitals team may have opened the door on the next phase of winning: Speed AND size.
Penguins, Capitals, Eastern Conference Scale
The Pittsburgh Penguins began last season with an average skater weight of 198 pounds. Washington’s skaters weighed an average of 206 pounds. In the playoffs, the Penguins disadvantage grew as their average weight dropped with players such as Dominik Simon and Chad Ruhwedel in place of Ryan Reaves and Ian Cole.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who were thought to be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference but lost to Washington in the conference final, had an average weight of 195 pounds, which placed them near the bottom of the NHL.
Washington effectively used their size and physicality advantage against the Penguins and especially Tampa Bay. Boxers or wrestlers would not face an opponent with a 13-pound weight advantage. But hockey is different because of the speed and skill components. In the past, the Penguins negated bigger, slower teams size advantage by skating around them, by beating them to loose pucks and by pressuring them in every zone.
The Penguins added beef this offseason. Defenseman Jack Johnson and forwards Derek Grant and Matt Cullen each weigh over 200 pounds. In fact, without the tiny Dominik Simon in the lineup, the Penguins’ average skater weight will jump to over 200 pounds.
The Boston Bruins, who figure to be one of the four best teams in the Eastern Conference are also tapping into their history with large players, but the Bruins are amassing larger, talented players. Their average skater weight this season could be over 202 pounds.
And that is why Washington’s win could be transformative, as well. By mixing skill players with large, physical players who can skate well, teams could again make physicality a necessary component to winning. Being fast won’t be enough if opponents are fast enough to inflict punishment on smaller players. At the bare minimum, teams will need to have enough players who are large or strong enough to win corner battles against physical opponents, which can also get to the puck quickly.
Skill will always be a requirement to win. Washington finally received post-season contributions from Evgeny Kuznetsov, which was a huge factor in their championship. Vrana, too. The increased speed from Wilson, Smith-Pelly, Vrana and defenseman Christian Djoos opened the game up for Washington and made their physicality more effective, which not only added to Washington’s offense, it diminished their opponents.
Speed is and will be a vital part of the NHL game, but being fast will not be good enough against an opponent who can marginalize “speed” advantage. The Penguins have reacted accordingly, and the top teams in the Eastern Conference are putting space..and weight..between themselves and the pack.