If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you need speed. And for players on their way up through the ranks, skating acumen is going to be the price of admission for an NHL job
I was having a conversation with an NHL team scout yesterday, which is one of the best parts of my job. I learn so much from these chats and not just about the draft prospects we are discussing, but of the bigger picture as well. While discussing the pros and cons of some prospects, we began to talk about skating and its place in the game today. Simply put, it's becoming a must-have.
"The No. 1 priority is skating," said the scout. "Even if your hockey sense or skills aren't the greatest, at least we can point you in the right direction."
We all know it's a fast game today and you just have to look at all the recent champions to validate the skating argument. Team Canada's World Cup squad suffocated opponents with their skating, taking away time and space at both ends of the ice – though their excellence in the puck possession department dramatically narrowed the amount of time they had to use their speed on the defensive end.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup this past summer thanks to a team that had speed up and down its lineup. Think about it – how many Penguins from that team would you characterize as slow, by NHL standards? Maybe a couple, at most? Meanwhile, teams had to contest with Sidney Crosby, Carl Hagelin and Kris Letang, among many others.
At the world juniors, Team USA won gold with a similarly dangerous lineup, trotting out the likes of Colin White, Clayton Keller and Jack Roslovic to terrify teams.
What's really interesting for me is how speed is going to change bottom-six roles in the NHL. We're already seeing it, with teams employing fewer enforcers, but how far can the concept be pushed? Roslovic might be the perfect case study to keep an eye on, because as a prospect of the Winnipeg Jets, he's got a lot of talent ahead of him in the form of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. But if Roslovic, who is leading AHL Manitoba in scoring as a rookie, despite missing games due to the world juniors, is ready for the NHL leap next season, why hold him back if he can contribute from the third line? If defense is coming from speed these days anyway, it seems like a pretty nice way to get more skill in the lineup.
Tampa Bay will have a similar query to address in a year or two when prospects such as Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph come knocking on the door. All three have skill, but they can also skate and play with grit. It's a great problem to have if you're the Lightning.
What happens to prospects that aren't blessed with foot speed? Well, it's going to take them a little longer. We're seeing it with Dylan Strome, whom most of assumed would be full-time in Arizona this season. But thanks to his abundance of other talents and attributes, Strome can zero in on improving on his speed and strength, knowing that an NHL career is close. It can certainly be done, but he'll have to watch out for all the young burners out there on the fast-track while he does it.