SAN JOSE – Aside from the players themselves, there are a good number of 18-year-old kids who were thrilled to see the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup this spring.
Unless you follow the prospect world, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of the likes of Will Bitten, Clayton Keller, Vitali Abramov, Alex DeBrincat and Rasmus Apslund yet. But you will. And depending on how many NHL teams try to copy the blueprint provided by this year’s Stanley Cup-winning Penguins, they might have a better chance to make the NHL than they ever have.
All of the aforementioned players are up for this year’s draft and all are undersized players who have an abundance of skill and speed. And if there was one defining factor that overrode all others in the playoffs and the Stanley Cup final, it was speed. Speed kills. The Penguins used their fast feet, their lightning-quick sticks and quick-moving brains to dismantle the Sharks, a team that was never able to use its strengths in the Stanley Cup final because the Penguins kept taking their best attributes away from them.
The Penguins are a team that you kind of want to punch in the throat if you’re an opponent. They don’t give you an inch of space. They’re on you like a bunch of young girls at a Justin Bieber sighting. They get up in your face, they strip you of the puck and before you know it, they’re moving it the other way to create a scoring chance.
With the success of the Los Angeles Kings in recent years, the recipe for building a successful team seemed to be to have a bunch of very big, very skilled players in your lineup, players who could win the possession game by cycling the puck into oblivion. The Sharks themselves found a lot of success this season with that tactic and the Washington Capitals, a Western Conference-built team playing in the Eastern Conference, rode it to the Presidents’ Trophy.
But then along came the Penguins, who were fast to begin with, then got faster with acquisitions such as Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz. With a coach in Mike Sullivan who worked with his strengths and exploited them to their fullest, the Penguins were prepared to turn games into a track meet. And they almost always won them.
“I like the skill, speed team like we have,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “I think it’s more fun to watch. I think it’s a better brand of hockey. But when you look at what our team does with the speed, we disorient other teams and you can go through the four teams we played and our team speed was hard to handle. The speed made a big difference.”
So now it remains to be seen whether the Penguins will be seen around the hockey world as a one-off or a team that’s really onto something. If it’s the latter, you can expect to see teams following suit by building their rosters the way the Penguins have. It’s not easy of course, but a draft with an abundance of small, skilled and fast players might be a good place to start.
“It’s hard to do,” Rutherford said. “You can’t go to the Olympics and get speed skaters. You’ve got to find hockey players and we were fortunate. Daley didn’t fit in in Chicago and Hagelin didn’t fit in in Anaheim. We were hoping we got the (Hagelin) who played for the Rangers and we did. Those kinds of guys are hard to find, but when they’re out there, we’ll be looking for more."