As the New York Islanders assembled some success, or at least progress, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, you'd hear more and more other teams and hockey media note their team speed. The Penguins noted it as the Islanders had them on their heels -- and outshot them -- in four of six playoff games.
But what is it, really?
"Team speed" is one of hockey's many amorphous measures that has no trusty, well, measure. You think you know it when you see it, but you can't exactly pinpoint it nor average out everyone's 40-yard dash to get a rating.
- Tallying up individuals you think could win a lap around the ice doesn't quite tell you what you want.
- Counting breakaways doesn't tell you much. (Yes, the Islanders have breakaway machine Michael Grabner. What about the other 17 skaters?)
- Even observing how fast a team gets in on the forecheck is more of a stylistic thing -- are they aggressive or passive? -- than a measure of speed.
But that last point might be closest to the mark. One age-old principal in coaching is that the puck moves faster than any individual player can skate. From that premise comes the idea that if you maintain puck possession -- and do it securely and quickly -- then you are creating discomfort for the opponent, who is now scrambling to keep up.
There is plenty of talk about the league being a fast, young man's game now. Part of that is probably an echo chamber, but part of that is real: Transitions, keeping the puck, getting other teams' off their game, it's always important but it is more so when younger (and faster) talent is taking over and obstruction is the exception rather than the rule.
In an official team site article about Jack Capuano that talked a lot about all kinds of the usual indefinable hockey concepts of "grit" and "determination" and "accountability," there was also a little of this:
"You can look at our team individually, man-for-man against other teams that we play," Capuano said. "Maybe we’re not as fast individually, but there’s a certain style. We have to play fast and we have to play on our toes, and I thought we did a good job of that this year."
"Every single day, we had the focus and the work ethic, and the right details in practice," forward John Tavares said. "Guys bought in and were doing the right things. I think early on, we didn’t have the success. There were a lot of ups and downs. But we developed a lot of good habits early in the season during practice as far as how we needed to play, and that kept us going, kept us in the mix, even when things weren’t going well."
For me those descriptions bear out: As the season went on, the Islanders had "good habits" and "details" in place that aided whether their team speed mattered.
I look at their breakouts, and how consistently wingers were able to receive and move passes from the half walls, how consistently a center or second winger was able to receive the relay breaking out of the zone, and how consistently the third forward was joining that rush and able to convert a breakout into a transition to the opposition's zone.
None of this is new or groundbreaking stuff. A hockey breakout is quite simple, really. But to have consistent success, "speed" sure helps. And even if the opponent knows what you're going to do, if you can speed it up ... catch me if you can.
But that doesn't just mean the foot speed to get there before the opponent. It means the speed to handle the puck quickly and accurately, making a quick decision to move it onward. (The second line of Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey became machine-like in this area on transition plays down the stretch. Consistent breakouts and audibles that got the puck out with possession, limiting time in their zone.)
It also requires the work ethic to make sure you keep going at that speed, breakout after breakout, even when things aren't working out.
Skating and moving at high capacity is hard; quick decisions that may end up with you taking a hit to make a play takes courage. (And mustering that courage time after time, especially for talented players who have a safe job anyway, takes a belief that the sacrifice will be worth it.)
Doing that regularly does take the ol' "grit" and "determination." The forward consistently going there rather than bailing out builds confidence in the defenseman who is looking to send that breakout pass to him. If that forward doesn't do it, that's when you better have the ol' internal "accountability" in place.
You can boil the Islanders season down to other factors: John Tavares is great. Lubomir Visnovsky massively improved their transition game. Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic helped limit the damage from opponents' top lines. Michael Grabner on the third line and PK was a sign of long-awaited depth.
But you have to go beyond that. The Islanders lower lines were more effective than this team has seen in years. The team, as noted often before, finally outshot opponents on a regular basis. They drove play more often than not. The Islanders five-on-five goal ratio (.98) was the highest it's been in years, and that despite having one of the league's worst save percentages.
Those things like Visnovsky's puck movement -- no more Steve Staios or Mark Eaton off-the-glass breakouts, but it should be noted Visnovsky is a great skater despite his age -- and the luxury of Grabner making the third line dangerous rather than just bangers? They are indications of an overall team approach that was working. Details adhered to.
They were moving, and keeping, the puck better. With speed.
Now the coaching staff just has to get them to do it again next year.