On opening night of this NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a lineup that included Rob Scuderi, Bobby Farnham, and Sergei Plotnikov. None of those three are what you would call “quick skaters”. Or having “speed”.
Fast forward to early April and those three players have been replaced, essentially, with Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and Tom Kuhnhackl. That’s a huge upgrade in speed, to say nothing of the minutes now provided by other Wilkes-Barre guys like Conor Sheary and Oscar Sundqvist.
The Penguins have made a conscious decision, on the fly in the middle of an NHL season, to re-invent themselves as a speed-based team. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Jim Rutherford. When you refer to someone as “a Timex watch in a digital world”, you’re pretty much staking out a position that the game has passed someone by. So although I grudgingly give him credit for this speed infusion, my cynical nature is telling me that the influence of assistant GM Jason Botterill may be in play here, too.
Technology is being introduced into the NHL as advanced metrics come to more prominence. One of the technologies is player tracking software implemented by Power Scout Hockey and their partners, Pro Zone Sports. As per this Rangers-based article from October 2014, Carl Hagelin was determined to be the fastest skater in the NHL by cameras that tracked skating speed and skating acceleration. If you click the link and look at this chart, you’ll see that of the 22 skaters shown in the graphic, three of them now play for the Penguins (Hagelin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby). The highest acceleration rate belongs to Alexander Ovechkin, but open ice speed (in 2014, at least) was Hagelin at 37.10 km/hr (23.2 mph).
This technology is, naturally, of a proprietary nature to Pro Zone Sports and Power Scout Hockey, but it is slowly being implemented into the NHL. The NHL Players Association is concerned that the data could be used against their slower-footed brethren to try and weed them out, but you have to figure that agents want to use it to highlight their speedier clients to obtain better deals in the new NHL. The NHL has also mentioned the possibility of speed-based advanced stats being added onto their website for public consumption in the next few seasons, as well.
More speed means less dump-and-chase and more possession, which is why the Penguins’ possession stats are skyrocketing in the past few months. The identity of this team has been re-invented. It’s hard to hit what you can’t catch, so the Penguins are now able to possess the puck more often and put themselves into better shooting positions as a result. It remains to be seen if this speed-based style will play during the playoffs when the ice shrinks and the games get tight. But if it does, it will be because Jim Rutherford (with perhaps a push from Jason Botterill) was willing to adapt and change, rather than remain and perish.