The NHL needs a Stanley Cup Final like Penguins-Sharks can provide
Speed is taking over the NHL and the Penguins and Sharks are going to show us why
PITTSBURGH -- If Game 1 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final is any sign of what is to come during the next two weeks, then we are going to be in for one heck of a series, and it is not merely because of superstar players like Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton.
It is mostly because of the way they are going to play the series.
The Pittsburgh Penguins' 3-2 win against the San Jose Sharks on Monday night was played at a ridiculously fast pace as the two teams spent the night exchanging scoring chances, odd-man rushes and counter-attacks over a thrilling 60 minutes of hockey.
It could also be a sign of what is to come in the NHL in future seasons.
Speed is going to take over the league.
The NHL, like leagues in any other sport, is constantly evolving, and the style of play at a given time is always going to shift based on the rules or the type of hockey that winning teams are playing. We recently saw the dead puck era in the late 1990s and early 2000s when clutch-and-grab hockey and was the norm across the league. It helped drag the game to a snail's pace, where skill and talent almost seemed to be an afterthought to building the biggest, strongest, and most physical team possible.
When you look at the past two Stanley Cup Final matchups, with the Chicago Blackhawks facing the Tampa Bay Lightning a year ago and now this Penguins-Sharks matchup, there is a very noticeable trend among all four teams.
They can all fly and a highly skilled game. Their first instinct with the puck is to attack and create rather than to sit back and play it safe. Teams having success playing that brand of hockey should be a welcome sign for fans.
As scoring has continued to drop to record lows during the past two decades, there have been endless debates raging on as to what the league needs to do to help bring scoring back. Bigger ice. Bigger nets. Smaller goalies. Call more penalties.
The point that keeps getting missed is that it isn't any one problem that has contributed to the decline in scoring. The problem also isn't necessarily the number of goals that get scored in an average game. A lot of times, the problem is the style of play and the pace.
Monday's game in Pittsburgh had only five goals, which is not a huge number. But the game itself was great. The pace was fantastic, there were great scoring chances and great responses from the goalies.
One of the biggest problems in the NHL has been with the teams themselves and the way they are constructed and the way they try to play, refusing to allow their players to play that type of game.
The GMs and coaches are just as responsible -- if not more responsible -- than the size of the playing surface, the size of the net, or the referees who love to put their whistles away at certain points in the game. They are responsible because too often they favor toughness and grit over speed and skill. Because they favor a more "play-it-safe" brand of hockey. Just look at the way Team USA was constructed for the World Cup of Hockey, an international tournament where management was dealing with no salary-cap restrictions and could take the very best players at their disposal. Instead of taking skilled players like Phil Kessel and Tyler Johnson (two of the most productive players in the 2016 playoffs!) they opted for grinders like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Justin Abdelkader because, well, gotta be tough to play against!
Also because that is the way the 1996 World Cup team played. Twenty years ago. In an entirely different era.
This same line of thinking comes in to the way they build their NHL teams. Be big. Be tough. Be physical. Don't take chances.
It might be starting to change.
When the Penguins started to piece together this roster, there always seemed to be a concern they weren't big enough, or tough enough, or strong enough, or that bigger and stronger teams would start to wear them down and eliminate their speed. Their defense is made up almost entirely of puck-movers and doesn't really have a "crease-clearing, physical" defenseman. Their forwards are going to spend more time trying to skate around and use their speed to cause havoc on the forecheck than by skating through you (Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz are probably the only two exceptions).
Every team that has played them this season, and especially in the playoffs, has commented on their speed and how tough it is to contain. Following a second-round loss to the Penguins, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan talked about the desire to add more speed to his lineup. Any team that isn't doing the same thing this offseason is going to fall behind.
The Sharks have a bit more size and play a more physical brand of hockey than the Penguins, but the beauty of their roster is it's not merely size for the sake of size or physical play for the sake of physical play. They can all skate, they can all play at a fast pace, and they can all create things offensively.
The Blackhawks' approach has always been more about playing a skillful game than a physical one, and the Lightning have used a similarly skilled approach to reach the NHL's final four in back-to-back years while looking like a team that is set up for sustained success.
Pro sports leagues are all about being copycats. If a particular team, or a group of teams, finds success playing a similar way, everybody else is going to try and duplicate it (that is how the dead puck era started in the mid-1990s, after all). You are already starting to see more teams around the league starting to trend in that direction, whether it's not being afraid to draft and sign undersized skilled players, or teams like the Dallas Stars going all in on speed and scoring.
The more teams like Penguins and Sharks have success and deep playoff runs by playing a faster, more skilled brand of hockey, the more teams are going to try and build in their image.
That will be only a good thing for the NHL's on-ice product and the fans who want to consume it.
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