Hockey is always going to be a physical sport, and the NHL will always be a physical league.
It is a fast game, played within the confines of a limited space, where 10 people (not counting goalies) are chasing around a small piece of rubber. Collisions will happen. There will be contact. It will sometimes get ugly.
No matter what changes happen to the game, whether it be within the rules or the style of play, that element will never completely disappear. It is just natural. It is going to happen.
At some point over the past 20-25 years, there seemed to be a shift in the NHL where teams started to look for players that excelled only in that element of the game. Being physical. Hitting people. Playing with “grit.” One of the big reasons for that emphasis was probably the Detroit Red Wings “grind line” in the late-1990s that just unloaded on people every time it was on the ice. Because they had success with it, everybody else started to think they needed a grind line of their own, and the energy/checking line was born. It eventually got to the point where players were deemed too talented to play in the bottom six because those roles were supposed to be for players that checked and were “tough to play against.”
If a skilled player that lacked a physical edge wasn’t good enough to be in a team’s top-six, he probably wasn’t going to be on that team.
But the game is starting to evolve once again, and our idea of what makes a player tough to play against should be starting to change along with that evolution. It’s not players that go around chase hits. It’s players who can out-skate you.
It’s not players that go around chase hits. It’s players who can out-skate you.
Let’s take the recent World Cup of hockey as an example.
On one side, you had Team USA go in with a roster that was designed to wear teams (specifically Canada) down with physical play. They wanted grit and jam and it was all pretty much laughed at in the build-up to the tournament because, well, everybody else was taking their most skilled players. The laughs only grew louder when they failed to win a single game in the tournament.
While that was happening, the North American team, made up of players under the age of 24, was playing a game that was based on speed, and they quickly became the talk of the tournament, starting with their pre-tournament domination of Team Europe. In the aftermath of those two beat downs, Europe coach Ralph Krueger talked about how those games woke his team up, got the player’s attention, and clarified what they needed to do.
The fast team, both in terms of its natural speed and pace of play, did that to them.
Not the one that played with grit and snarl.
Go back a few months earlier to when the Pittsburgh Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup. That team, after a midseason coaching change and roster overhaul, transformed into the fastest team in hockey. They weren’t overly physical. They didn’t have a ton of size. But they could out-skate everybody. It was their biggest advantage over every team they played. Every time they faced a team that was supposed to counter that with physical play and wear them down (specifically in the first two rounds against the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals), they just kept out-skating them and playing at a pace they could not match.
From probably the end of January until they were skating around with the Stanley Cup every team they played along the way remarked about their speed and how difficult it was to contain it. They didn’t really talk about getting hit or physical play. Tampa Bay and Chicago, the two Stanley Cup Finalists the year before (and Tampa Bay was in the Eastern Conference Final again against the Penguins), were built in a similar manner, where skill and pace took a priority over everything else.
In the aftermath of the Penguins’ success, a number of teams spent the summer talking about how they wanted to get faster and add more speed to their lineup, including the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals. New Senators coach Guy Boucher spent most of training camp talking about the importance of his team playing with “speed” and “pace.”
Those seem to be the biggest buzzword in the NHL right now. Speed. Pace. Play fast.
Obviously, you want some sort of other NHL-level skill that goes along with that speed and pace to make it all work. But then again, NHL teams have spent two decades putting players on the ice whose biggest (and at times, only) value was their ability to hit people. If you are going to be that one-dimensional about a certain role, why not invest that roster spot in a skill that might actually have a more tangible impact on winning hockey games? As the Penguins, Lightning and Blackhawks have shown over the past two years you can fill your bottom lines with players that don’t fit the physical, checking role that has traditionally filled those spots. And like almost all winning teams, they consistently get outhit.
The most physical team doesn’t usually win. It’s the best team.
There used to be a time in the NHL (and not that long ago) that nearly every team in the league had an enforcer in their lineup. Somebody that was supposed to keep the peace and be a deterrent for cheap shots, but mostly to just fight the other team’s enforcer on the rare occasion they were both on the ice at the same time.
That role is now all but extinct because teams realized that it did not really work the way they thought it did and that roster spot was too valuable to spend on a player that would only play five minutes a night.
In recent years you have started to see the traditional “stay-at-home” defenseman start to become less of a factor as teams look for puck-movement and mobility on their blue line. It’s not about defending in your zone and clearing the net. It is about winning races to pucks and getting it out of the zone.
The game is always evolving.
The next step in the evolution seems to be the third-and fourth-line grinder being phased out for more speed, mainly because that seems to be the element that really is most difficult to play against in the NHL right now.