The NHL is heading in a new direction. One of less physicality and fighting, and more skill. The new game is all about speed and stacking lines with talent instead of grit. The NHL and hockey in general have been headed this way for a long time, but the 2015-2016 Pittsburgh Penguins have been a big push in that direction.
Ever since the 2010 Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, teams have been looking for ways to replicate the Hawks astounding success. With three cups in six years, the Blackhawks model of three talented lines and a fourth defensive line looked to be the model for years to come. The 2015-16 Penguins were seemingly based of this model. With three lines of superstars, including one line with Sidney Crosby, one line with Evgeni Malkin, and one line with Phil Kessel, it bettered the Blackhawks formula. The formula, which at its apex, had one line with Jonathon Toews, one line with Patrick Kane, and one line with Patrick Sharp.
With the success of this type of team, the NHL has found a new way into the future. With all sporting leagues now becoming concerned with safety (especially with CTE and concussions), speed in the NHL is a good direction, especially when it replaces physicality and fighting. Those two elements had long been associated with hockey. Hockey is the only sport where a player can punch another player and not be ejected and seriously punished. But with CTE studies finding danger in this practice, the NHL has started cracking down on fighting and physicality. The teams who rely on grit and heart are becoming less successful. In their stead are the new sleeker model – the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and LA Kings all fit this mold. They are also the most successful teams of the last five years.
It’s becoming harder and harder to find teams specializing in grit and physicality. The teams that do – the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, and the Boston Bruins are becoming less successful. The Blues were able to find their way to the Western Conference Finals based on this game, but were beaten by the faster, deeper model. The new type of team focuses not only on the first line, but on depth. It’s taking more and more talented centers to win the Stanley Cup – Pittsburgh had four solid ones in Sidney Crosby, Nick Bonino, Evgeni Malkin, and Matt Cullen. LA had three at their peak – Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards. The Blackhawks have always had four, but the two mainstays have been Jonathon Toews and Marcus Kruger.
When a team is focused on speed, and depth with skill and ability, it takes a lot of the physicality away from the game. It’s harder to hit a quickly moving target. It’s why San Jose’s defense couldn’t stop Pittsburgh’s incredible forecheck. All lines were moving far too quickly.
The new model is becoming more widespread, in places like Calgary, Winnipeg, Arizona, New York (Islanders), Florida, and Buffalo. All are young teams, and all have learned from their elders about what style of play works best. It doesn’t hurt that the last 5 straight cups, and 6 of the last 7 have been won by teams using this new style.
With offenses across the league focused on speed, defenses are having to focus on skill as well. That’s why defenses have gotten deeper, with all three pairs being able to be used whenever. The Penguins defense wasn’t as good, but that’s because they were entirely offensive oriented. The Blackhawks’ main success has always been their defense, and the Kings follow that mold. The defensemen no longer go for the huge hit, instead focusing on pokechecks, blocked shots, and takeaways.
Defense has also changed form, focusing on the offensive defenseman. Erik Karlsson is considered one of the best defensemen in the league for a reason – he puts up points. Duncan Keith won a Conn Smythe for his ability to perform in clutch moments. Aaron Ekblad is widely regarded as one of the best young d-men because of his ability to play both sides of the ice.
This is the form that will allow hockey to survive. It has already allowed for smaller players, as the risk of getting crushed has largely left the game. The enforcer is a thing of the past, mainly because they can’t score. While fighting may never fully leave the game, it’s hoped that the blows that cause CTE will.