It wasn’t too long ago, maybe three or four seasons back, when a majority of pro hockey’s team architects were fixated on implementing and upgrading one primary team characteristic: speed. ”We need to get faster”, was the driving mantra. It had seemed to most that the days of the stay-at-home defenseman and traditional checking lines were becoming a thing of the past. Speed was desirable at all positions on the ice. The more the better.
While those team traits are still very much desirable and commonplace in the league today, the proverbial pendulum may have swung a bit too far in that one (speed) direction. Today, teams are now beginning to realize that maybe a hybrid makeup might be more desireable. A concise mix of “speed” and “heavy” might be more efficient. But finding that perfect blend is truly a delicate balancing act.
Alex Ovechkin recently told the Washington a post, “Everything right now is fast, and it’s not a lot of tough guys out there,” Ovechkin said. “Teams don’t want to play against us because we play physical.”
The Capitals transition to a more physical persona was implemented recently by Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan, with significant adjustments made just this past offseason. The organization felt there might be a sub-optimal imbalance.
MacLellan shed some light on his current philosophy and the offseason adjustments made in a recent Q&A with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun last week in Toronto. He spoke about his vision for a successful team in today’s league.
“I think there are different ways to win, but I think when you hit that stretch run and the playoffs, the game gets heavier and you have to have the ability to adapt to that heavy game. We try to strike some balance between enough team speed and enough heaviness. Because I think you need the team speed to get through the year, and you need the heaviness to finish off the year and get into the playoffs. I think you have to have a combination of both. I think the year we won it, we had it; I even think last year we had it, too. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. But all our transactions this offseason were based on: ‘Do you have enough team speed, and are we big enough?’ We tried to blend them both together again this year.”
MacLellan further refined his current vision in an interview with the Washington Post. “I just think that when you have more guys playing a harder game, the team does better,” MacLellan said. “Often if someone is playing that way, it brings the other guys up to that level, and they want to play that way, too. They set the tone for the game.”
For MacLellan, he sees a fast team that can transition to a heavy game in the spring, in-season, as this year’s ideal configuration, and gives him and the Capitals the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
Lebrun followed up in his Q&A with reference to the Capitals acquisition of Radko Gudas, and the impression that left with him (LeBrun). LeBrun mentioned the existing physical style of play the Capitals already had with Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. LeBrun speculated on the reaction as word spread around the league of the Gudas acquisition: “I think everyone in the league was thinking, ‘What in the world is Washington trying to do here!” MacLellan expanded on his philosophy.
“(Laughter). No, I mean we like Gudas. I think he’s an underrated player. We’ve watched his progression. There’s the open ice hits, but much like Tom, they like being physical players and both have adjusted their games to the rules, which have evolved, the way they’re evaluating hits. Gudas has been a physical presence for us but he’s also not taken a lot of penalties. I don’t know if there’s been a borderline hit with him where I think, ‘Maybe he’s in trouble here.’ So he’s been good. He does a good job moving the puck, he has a physical presence, he’s provided what we thought he’d provide. And (Garnet) Hathaway is another one. He’s been good on the forecheck, been a physical player. But the thing about Hathaway is that he can skate well. He’s a physical player, makes some plays. So we’ve added guys who have that element but also can skate and they can play.”
The transition from Niskanen to Gudas is initially a clear move for adding more “heavy”, although Niskanen wasn’t exactly soft in the zone. Gudas’ resume brings more hits with him, and a bit more nasty on the back end. Further comparison at this point would be a “apples to oranges” comparison that lacks too much context (comparing first 14 games from this season to first 14 games of last season omits too much: schedule, home and away schedules, strength of schedules, opposition improvements or degradation, roster changes, modified schema, etc. You get the point).
Possibly a little more under the radar in the Capitals offseason transition to a heavier team was the acquisition of Garnet Hathaway. Hathaway is essentially Brett Connolly’s replacement. While many fans and media were worried if Hathaway could replace Connolly’s scoring, (Connolly was second on the Capitals in 5-on-5 points to Alex Ovechkin last season, with no power play time and 25% less minutes than Ovechkin), it appears MacLellan wasn’t looking for similar points generation, but rather a new prototype for the 3RW position. He wanted more “heavy” at the position/line, figuring the points will indirectly follow. So far it looks like he may have made the right move.
In hindsight, the Capitals recent roster “adjustments” represent a significant shift, that is more than just a few minor tweaks. You could surmise the organization felt it needed a significant reshaping after last seasons play and early postseason exit. The question that remains, is whether or not MacLellan has found the perfect balance between speed and heavy. We won’t know the answer to that until the end of the season, but early indications point to a more optimal configuration so far this season.
By Jon Sorensen