Krupa: Red Wings’ need for speed is critical
Detroit — Speed has been vital to the Red Wings game, at times, for generations. But it is more important now than ever.
While both great Stanley Cup eras of the franchise, the 1950s and the dozen years beginning in 1997, featured players who played with pace, they were more singular in the NHL than fast players today.
More teams play like the Wings now.
In recent seasons, a clear trend in the NHL is teams jettisoning burly, physical players, whose skating skills lagged, for quicker big ones or sleeker men capable of considerable speed and an accelerated style of play.
Muscle and intimidation still have their place in hockey, but it is narrower.
Everyone wants to play faster.
And in a league sometimes too obsessed with the purported lessons of the last Stanley Cup winner, it escapes the notice of few that the Penguins got significantly better last season when they integrated into their lineup some flyers like the former Wolverines standout Carl Hagelin and young upstarts.
(Which is not to say that Sidney Crosby’s return to health did not have something to do with it, too!)
Regardless, to stay competitive, the Red Wings need more speed. Some of the personnel decisions and game strategies are geared to provide it, as they continue to evolve toward what the franchise hopes is a new era of perennial contention for the Cup.
But the Wings’ quest for speed is about more than that.
It is about the way they play otherwise, too, and their pursuit of turning the disappointment of last season into greater success, even as the roster continues to transform. To play with pace requires playing clean, starting with the puck, possessing it, and getting it back quickly when possession fails.
Pace proceeds from efficiency and control.
The Red Wings require more of all three, as they demonstrated against the Bruins and Panthers last weekend when sloppy, uninspired play produced less pace, ended a six-game winning streak and started a losing streak now at two.
But putting the pedal to metal more often and forcefully is clearly part of the program, and the purpose is more than merely generating speed.
“We thought that a strength of ours certainly could be our speed,” coach Jeff Blashill said before the two losses. “We’ve talked more about playing fast.
“But playing fast has way more to do with than just your team speed. It has to do with the mentality that every time you can, you want to beat people up the ice, the mentality that every time there’s a transition opportunity you’ve got to beat them up the ice.
“It also means you’ve got to do a real good job of getting back in your own zone and breaking the puck out better. I think we’re making strides in that area, certainly compared to last year.
“I think it’s both: It’s about our speed, but it’s also about our mentality of playing fast.
“We looked at it over the summer, and that is part of the reason that we wanted to make sure to get Darren Helm re-signed.”
The emphasis on speed and playing in a style that generates it accounts for a sea change in the NHL.
There always have been fast players, and the Wings have had perhaps more than their share.
When Gordie Howe and the great Canadiens player Jean Beliveau appeared on the ice together in 1996 for the closing of the Montreal Forum, Beliveau said something he always relished about the games with Howe’s Red Wings was that both teams played with pace, unlike the other four teams of the so-called Original Six.
Certainly the Wings teams coached by Scotty Bowman and featuring Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman emphasized speed with their signature lightning transitions.
Mike Babcock likes to play with speed.
But, it is different now.
A lack of flying
Before, there were some fast players. Now, managers and coaches crowd their rosters with them.
Denis Potvin, the former Islanders defenseman who won four Stanley Cups and in the Hockey Hall of Fame, described the transformation.
“The bottom line is that stride for stride I don’t think anyone could catch Paul Coffey,” Potvin said of the speedy former defenseman for the Wings and seven other teams.
“I’m not sure anyone could catch Bob Bourne (former Islander teammate).
“But we didn’t have four lines that could all skate like that. So, what you’re seeing in today’s game is that there’s no let up, just like there’s no delays in games because of bench-clearing brawls.
“So, you get used to seeing speed without interruption,” continued Potvin, who’s an analyst on Panthers TV broadcasts. “In the NHL, after the top two lines, with the third and fourth line, you often really had a difference in speed. Now, you don’t see that.
“Pittsburgh won because they could really fly.”
And the Red Wings were smacked convincingly by the Bruins and Panthers because they did not fly. They tethered themselves with lethargic, mistake-filled play.
“We need better effort than that,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said after the 5-2 loss to the Panthers.
“We need to have more energy, to come out in the first period with a little more jump.
“And you know, I think we need to play faster, as well. A little bit too slow in the last two games, transitioning pucks and stuff like that — turnovers as well.”