"...that's the game now. More than ever before, in small areas, the game is being played faster. When you watch teams cycle, there are changes of direction; there are guys walking out of the corner.
"So the game now, it's about explosive quickness that makes a difference. We really talk to our team all the time about that – how we've got to play fast and hopefully under control, but fast."
That's Coyotes assistant coach Dave King, as quoted by the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek, describing the approach the 'Yotes have used to achieve their surprising success this season. [Side topic, at Behind the Net: Just how surprising is it? And is it really coaching-related?]
King is a well-traveled, cerebral coach who, the conventional wisdom goes, has observed and digested the evolution of the game over his lifetime. At the root of his description -- more on it later in this post -- is an understanding that the post-lockout rule enforcement has opened up the game. Meanwhile, the widespread availability of video scouting and fitness expertise means the margins that separate players at the most elite level of hockey have become quite thin indeed. We have moved toward the point where the best NHLers are increasingly in their proverbial "athletic prime" (mid- to late-20s) or even younger: that wonderful age of boundless energy and indestructibility that has made for prime military drafting age for centuries.
But King's practice theory reminds me of a word that was big when Scott Gordon first came to the Islanders.
Overspeed: Gordon-Approved, Keanu Reeves-Free
We haven't heard much of that mythical term "overspeed" in quite a while. That's partly because it was misunderstood when Gordon used it upon his hiring and partly because, I suspect, Gordon soon learned it had become a buzz word. I imagine he didn't want media and fans -- who were naturally examining the new coach for cues and keys to his philosophy -- focusing on what he intended as a practice tactic and portraying it as some sort of voodoo in-game accelerator.
At the time of Gordon's hiring in late summer 2008, I understood it like this:
Not only does he see speed potential on the Isles roster (agreed), but he wants to instill a higher tempo by practicing drills at an "overspeed" rate. A rate in which, from the sounds of it, players are pushing the limits of their balance, "past their comfort level."
During Gordon's first training camp, Doug Weight described it like this:
"He’s not talking about the way you skate as a style," Weight said. "He’s saying, ‘You’ve got to move your feet more and move them more often.’ We’ve talked about it, and I’m a guy that slows the game down. But when I’m at my best, I’m playing my fastest while slowing the game down. You get more room the faster you are, and you can still make your snowplows and still make your fakes and buy yourself room."
All of which is to say: You are NHLers now. You are better than just about every other hockey player in the world. So congrats on that, have a cookie. But the players in this league -- a league built on speed and efficient shifts -- are either only slightly better than you, or very slightly worse. They have lucrative livelihoods on the line every shift, too. So you cannot afford to dial back on any 45-second shift.
And the way to make sure you are not prone to dialing back in a game is: (1) optimal fitness, obviously, but also (2) being able to make physical movements and strategic decisions at speed. Every. Shift.
Or as King described it to Duhatschek [emphasis mine]:
That comes from "consistent training at that level. If you think you can play at that level and not practice at that level, you can't do it. You got to stress it by practising at tempo. We do a lot of two-on-one drills with a back-checker; then we've got to play quick because we haven't got the time to make all those cute plays. We do a lot of things under pressure, because that way, when you get into a game, that's exactly what you face.
"If you don't simulate it in practice, you don't get it done in the game. So you've got to come up with ways to put your team under some checking pressure. That's all part of making sure the team feels confident and plays quick and executes at speed."
I don't want to focus too much on this -- and an important caveat is that I've not seen a Gordon practice and haven't had one of his practices described to me in months. But does that not sound like the way the Islanders have beaten, or jumped to a lead, on their many superior skilled opponents this season?
For a working theory on how to give yourself a chance in the modern NHL when your team is outskilled or lacks individual game-breaking stars, I think that approach is it. King certainly sees it that way. It sure sounds like Gordon does. And I'd bet more current coaches do than do not.