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Malarkey: The NHL's evolution of post-season dominance

As the league’s copycats bust out small, speedy lineups, has the NHL already changed to big, skilled and fast?

Reminiscing about Darryl Sutter’s Los Angeles Kings feels like admiring primitive cave drawings these days. They won Stanley Cups as recently as 2012 and 2014, but hockey has changed so much that those teams look like Dead Puck Era throwbacks.

Sutter’s Kings were dominant possession teams, outstanding defensively and, most memorably, they were huge. The average NHLer in 2011-12 was 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds. The Cup-winning Kings: 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. The average NHLer in 2013-14 was 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds. The Cup-winning Kings: 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds. They outweighed their typical opponent by an average of nine pounds per guy in 2014. They wore the competition down with a heavy game.

We know what happened next, of course. The 2015 Chicago Blackhawks won with one of the smallest teams in the league, and coach Mike Sullivan’s need-for-speed Pittsburgh Penguins captured consecutive Cups in 2016 and 2017 with a workmanlike defense corps that fired stretch passes to a brigade of fleet-footed, undersized forwards. The 2015 Hawks and 2016 Penguins were about six-foot on average with a mean weight below 200 pounds. Both teams were shorter and lighter than the league average. Being a copycat league, the NHL thus ushered in an era of rewarding speed and skill. The Kings’ style suddenly became fossilized. They missed the playoffs this spring for the third time in the past five years.

So would the NHL belong to the Little Guy for years to come, then? Hold on. To assume things would stay exactly the same would mean forgetting how Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection works. A quick refresher: organisms pass on traits to their offspring, certain traits suit them better for survival, and individuals whose traits suit them well to survival will pass on the most offspring to the next generation.

Giraffes are tall because the generations of shorter giraffes died out from failure to reach food in high places. For a while, big hockey teams bred other big hockey teams because the game was tailored to reward a heavy style. The Kings’ approach has died out because the game rewards speed and skill more than ever. Starting in 2017-18, stricter enforcement of slashing rules really opened up space for smaller, faster players. The likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point and Alex DeBrincat could fill the net like they never could’ve even five years ago. They were naturally selected to thrive in the new NHL ecosystem.

Eventually, however, a generational mutation would come along favoring a new set of traits built to thrive. That brings us to the 2018 Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals. They oozed skill and speed, no doubt. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie were high-talent, high-motor offensive weapons, all first-round picks. The Caps had the razzle-dazzle to compete with, and defeat, the skill-oriented Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning plus a Vegas Golden Knights team that prioritized a rapid, hornet’s-nest approach to forechecking and back pressure.

The Caps, though, also had Tom Wilson. And Lars Eller. And Devante Smith-Pelly. And Brooks Orpik. And Jay Beagle. In an NHL growing noticeably smaller and lighter, this Capitals team averaged 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, making it the biggest championship squad since the 2014 Kings. The Caps had the size to play a Sutter-like bruising style when necessary and the skill to run and gun. Wilson epitomizes Washington’s dual-threat identity. He’s a 6-foot-4, 220-pound monster who bludgeons opponents with his hits and fists yet also keeps up with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov in a first-line role, stride for stride.

Behold, the next phase of hockey’s evolution. It’s established that small and fast beats big and slow in today’s NHL. But it stands to reason a biological mutation to big and fast beats small and fast. The laws of natural selection suggest any team that manages to blend both traits should win the fight to survive.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been hockey’s most dominant, talented club this season. They also entered 2018-19 as the NHL’s 28th-heaviest and 23rd-tallest team. Our Stanley Cup pick, the Winnipeg Jets, entered the season as the league’s tallest and seventh-heaviest squad – while still boasting almost as many elite-skill players as the Lightning. Washington’s evolutionary traits made it a champion last year – and could birth a new Cup-winning offspring in Winnipeg this June.

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