Next week here at The Athletic I’ll start rolling out a series of posts that plays pretty well to my strengths in player analysis. They’ll look at the best isolated individual skills around the NHL while comparing the elite to the other elites. Some of those will be looking at the classics, so to speak – who is the fastest skater when it comes to straightaway speed, who’s got the hardest shot and all the rest – while a couple of others will look at who has the most unique NHL trait, who’s the most deceptive laterally and more.
To make sure I didn’t overlook anyone, and to give readers a more comprehensive look around the league, I enlisted the help of most of our beat writers to weigh in on their own teams. Given that I write on the Leafs a little more regularly than other teams, I filled in the questionnaire for Toronto, which brings me to a meta-point about NHL hockey today that’s a reality but not often acknowledged.
The skill sets that makeup star players in the NHL today would be borderline unrecognizable to those who marveled at the speed of a Guy Lafleur, the cannon shot of an Al MacInnis or the brawn of a Clark Gillies. It’s extremely rare today that one player is good enough at one thing, or even two things, to where it allows us to say “that’s the one raw ability that makes that player better than everyone else.” There are exceptions, but they’re few. The full list: McDavid’s speed, Ovechkin’s one-timer, maybe Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara’s shot, though I’d argue their shots weren’t even considered their most important attributes for their given teams during their prime years. Every player today is so good at everything, that being elite in one or two of the basics of the game is no longer enough to earn status as an elite player.
To put it somewhat strangely, today’s stars have to be physical liars. Seemingly nothing they do, and nothing they advertise themselves to be doing next, ends up being the truth. They’re changing angles, altering release points and pushing their arms out on simple passes before changing that pass direction at the last second with their wrists. The speed they’re moving at now will not be the speed they’re skating at in a second, and it may not be because they’re about to go faster. It’s so rare to be good enough at any one thing that you can deploy it honestly and have it consistently best your opponents.
The American Hockey League and overseas are littered with players that you could say this about: “My god, with the way he skates there’s no way he should be in the minors.” You may think it about a dozen different guys and a dozen different abilities over the course of a single game. The AHL’s fastest skater contest was won by Anthony Greco, whose time was faster than McDavid’s by a blink. The hardest shot contest was won by Greg Carey, whose 100.4 MPH slapper would’ve been harder than five of the eight attempts taken in the NHL skills affair. If you want to stretch it far back enough, I myself once went four for four in an All-Star game accuracy shooting contest. You get the idea – elite individual abilities do not an NHL All-Star make.
I mention that this came up when I was looking at the Leafs roster when I had this epiphany, because, well, you try it, and let’s see where that takes us: who on the Toronto Maple Leafs has the hardest shot?
… … …
Yeah, that’s kinda where I was too. No idea.
I don’t mean who has the best shot – that’s another question entirely, and one that’ll be included in my upcoming “best raw skills” series – I mean who cranks that thing up to the highest MPH on the team? That led me directly to the question “who even takes slap shots on the Leafs?” The answer is somewhat irrelevant, as the point here is that asking that question is something that legitimately comes up when you consider hardest shot on the Leafs. But for trivia sake, last year’s leader was Ron Hainsey, who took 31 all season – good for 103rd most in the NHL.
Staying with the trivia portion for a second here, the Leafs top five was Hainsey (gone), Jake Gardiner with 19 (gone), Morgan Rielly with 19, Jake Muzzin with 15 (38 all season, LA combined), and Nikita Zaitsev with 15 (gone). Among forwards, only three guys took double digits all year. Marner attempted 12, Matthews 11, Nylander 10.
In conclusion, only Muzzin utilizes the slap shot as part of his arsenal at all, and even then, he uses it less than every other game. So … I guess he has the hardest shot on the team? Unless Matthews or Nylander’s wristy/snap shots are outpacing him, I guess nobody really has a traditional “hard” shot on the Leafs? The heavy slap shot – what was once a highly prized NHL raw ability – basically just … isn’t, anymore.
That’s a bit of a strange concept for someone who remembers it being so revered back when I was a kid.
One of the other Leafs questions was who’s the hardest hitter on the team? Well, that would be … well, damn, again. Who even hits anyone on that team? By hits-per-game, we’re again looking at Muzzin, who averaged two per night as a Maple Leaf. Other competitors for the title, well … you’re tempted to say Zach Hyman, because he actually runs into people, but that’s not the right answer. He hits with a purpose, he’s a puck separator, he rarely puts anyone on their backside. The other leaders by hits-per-game are Zaitsev – gone, and not a hard hitter anyway – Travis Dermott, who hits only strategically and Freddy the Goat, who hits with all the gusto of a gentle breeze off a pond on a cool spring morning (comparatively speaking, of course). Kasperi Kapanen bumps some people too, but yeah … you get the idea. The league itself is low on bone-rattlers these days, and the Leafs are on the extreme side in their total absence. Therefore, I guess you’d answer Muzzin here, who claims the title almost by default.
This is a chart from an article I wrote last year on the decline of hitting in general (and why it’s not important that Auston Matthews do it), showing the team who led the league in hits by year. It shows a decline in hits by the league leader of over six hundred in just six seasons.
The tool of straight-up hitting is fading away, as players use contact as more of a means of puck acquisition than intimidation and aggression.
It’s easy to read about the Leafs not taking slapshots and not really hitting anyone as an indictment, but Toronto has proven that their core is, at worst, quite good. They’ve hit 100 points two seasons in a row, have made the playoffs each of the last three and nobody out there is thinking they’re going to miss Hainsey’s slapshots all that much on their quest to get back to that level. They’re just playing a game that’s closer to how hockey looks today in the big picture and doing it quite well.
The advantage of having a guy with a cannon shot is so small in today’s game most players don’t bother winding up. The advantage of mowing over opponents in today’s game is so small that most players don’t bother chasing others down. And, most teams certainly don’t bother having those type of players around just because they do those niche things very well.
This difficult point that this speaks to, for hockey, is that the game has a problem on its hands. Hockey was already one of the fastest moving games not just in North America, but one of the fastest moving games, period. That made it hard to understand for potential new fans, and really only those who grew up watching or playing it were really adept at following what was happening. It was a tough game to sit down and understand without real effort, which is why it was great for those fans to at least be able to plainly see the contrast between the elite talents and everyone else. But it’s getting even harder for the newbie fan to do that.
The stars of today, as I mentioned earlier in this piece, are making it such a challenge to tell who’s good and who isn’t because “the little things” coaches reference all the time have gotten even littler. It seems like everyone can skate like the wind because the overall level of everyone’s skating is so high. Those of us who are around the game daily know there are a handful of players who are truly special in this specific category, but the gap between the Kasperi Kapanens and league average is not what the gap was between Guy Lafleur and the then league average. You have to know what you’re looking for to find it now and this is true for more than just raw speed. Explaining to someone why a great young player is great can rarely be done with simple terms like “size” or “speed” or “great shot.”
I find with most things in life, the deeper you go into your understanding, the more enjoyable it becomes (save for maybe politics). For example, the more I learn about astronomy, the more I enjoy learning about astronomy. Hockey (again, save for its politics) is like that. For us diehard fans, we love that the best players of today do what they do via deception. I get legitimately delighted when an offensive player lies to a defender about what he’s going to do next and the guy bites.
Below is maybe my favourite video I’ve made during my time with The Athletic (from this piece, also on deception), purely because I love the Ryan Johansen’ seemingly unimpressive wrist roll so much.
That to me is art, that’s talent, that’s special. The average level of player is so good today that the game’s stars have to specialize in speedy subtlety. What’s great just looks so far different from the greatness of yore.
There are still extremely rare exceptions to what we’re talking about here, as I mentioned in the intro, but grouping players by individual skills is harder than ever. On the whole, the game of hockey has changed, and as a result, the tools players use to become stars have moved towards blending skills, improvisation and deception over great single weapons.
Whether it’s a good thing or not, the marveling over today’s players is less “did you see what they just did” and more “what did they just do?”