There’s a lot of talk about how much faster the NHL is now; which implies that if your team isn’t fast, they can’t win. It also implies that physical hockey players don’t have a place in the game anymore. Does this hold up or is it already passe to suggest speed equals wins?
If you look at the last two Stanley Cup matchups: physical hockey > fast hockey. The St. Louis Blues shoved the Boston Bruins around last year, the year before that the Washington Capitals were lot more aggressive than the Vegas Golden Knights. There was more to these two matchups than which team was more physical, but it’s hard to ignore the physical play.
The most recent example is drawn from the best in the west, the Edmonton Oilers. A lot of their success comes from two of the best and fastest skaters in the league, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but their depth tells a different story. Here’s a look at the Oilers’ forwards who don’t shy away from the physical stuff.
Zack Kassian’s greatest asset is in his strength and physical play. He has a scoring touch but his most important role is to bring muscle to the top line to open things up for McDavid and Draisaitl.
It’s a bit of an old school notion, having a player who is a borderline goon on the top line, but it works. Even when he’s not on the top line, he tends to stay as a top-six forward and it looks like he’s being shuffled now. (‘Edmonton Oilers shuffle lines, moving Alex Chiasson to top line, Zack Kassian down one notch. Hmm,’ Edmonton Journal, 11/4/2019) He leads the team with a plus-10 through 16 games and is rocking a 15% shooting percent. Keep shooting, Zack!
One of my favorite sayings in hockey is, “ugly goals count too.” Don’t get me wrong, James Neal has a great shot, but this sums up how he has racked up a lot of his 281 goals in 11 years in the NHL. As you can see in the image above, he is a pest in front of goalies and defensemen struggle to wrench him away from that prized screening real estate.
Similar to Neal, Alex Chiasson can be a pest in front of the net and rack up some ugly goals. He might not have the wheels to be able to create a two-on-one with McDavid or Draisaitl, but his brand of goal scoring is still, say it with me, goal scoring. He’s off to a slow start with zero goals in 13 games, but as I suggested in my last piece, he’s been bumped to the top line to get him on the score sheet.
Related: Oilers Already Facing Must-Win Games
Here’s a player who is strong on the puck. Look at that focus. He barely notices that Nick Seeler is trying to stop him in his tracks. Good luck, Seeler! Now, I will say, Khaira’s production needs to pick up, but he is the kind of player a coach will be patient with through slumps. He has the intangibles with his strength, energy and heart.
One big body missing off this list is Jesse Puljujarvi. This is because he hasn’t worn an Oilers’ jersey this year, and it sounds like he might be done in Edmonton.
As I mentioned earlier, there is more to winning than being the more physical team. But teams that purely focus on being faster and more skilled may have found that speed and skill can hit a wall or, more accurately, get pushed into the boards.
Maybe the most important way to look at the physicality in today’s NHL: If I hit your star player, is anyone going to hit me back? If your team’s star player has to worry about fighting his own battles and providing offense, he’s going to struggle to focus on both.