NHL becoming a speed-oriented league, but it’s happening slowly

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North America’s Nathan MacKinnon celebrates his game-winning goal against Sweden during overtime of a World Cup of Hockey game in Toronto on Wednesday. (AP Photo)

With its extraordinary mix of speed and skill — and a good share of youthful recklessness thrown in — Team North America opened eyes and dropped jaws at the World Cup of Hockey. They were a throwback to the halcyon days of the 1980s Oilers, a relentless blur of odd-man rushes, bold moves to the net and end-to-end action. It was a glimpse into what hockey could and, in the eyes of many, should be.

The 23-and-under hockey wunderkinds were the story of the tournament, beating Finland, narrowly losing to Russia, and knocking off mighty Sweden in overtime, the last two among the most exciting games imaginable. Everyone loved watching them play — the fans, their coaches, their opponents.

“They’re totally different,” Canada coach Mike Babcock said. “I like watching that team because there’s tons of skill.

“I like winning more, though.”

In other words, wide-open hockey is fine for made-up super teams in international competitions, but it just won’t play in the NHL. If you’re waiting for breathless hockey to become the norm, well, don’t hold your breath.

“Ideally, we would all love to play that style of hockey,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, who was one of the co-managers of Team North America. “The challenge is finding guys with enough talent to do that. We had some of the most elite players from each team on one team.”

There’s no doubt that the game is trending toward more speed and skill, and away from so-called grit and physicality (ask Team USA how John Tortorella’s throwback mid-90s-style team worked out in Toronto). The Hawks won the Stanley Cup three times with a team predicated on speed and skill, navigating their way past bigger, heavier teams with grace and finesse. And the slick-and-speedy Pittsburgh Penguins raced to the Stanley Cup this past spring. Just two years removed from their second Cup in three seasons, the lumbering Los Angeles Kings already look like hockey dinosaurs.

Patrick Kane thinks the shift to a more skilled game is inevitable.

“You look at these young kids coming in these days, they’re so skilled, they’re so talented,” Kane said. “There’s so much training when they’re younger to work on their skills and their speed, individual coaches, all that stuff that players of my age or older really didn’t have available to them. I don’t see why not. I don’t see why the skill can’t keep getting better and the game can’t keep getting faster and more freewheeling and fun to watch. I think everyone was entertained by it, everyone wanted to watch. So why not put out a good product like that and help grow the game even more?”

But NHL coaches aren’t about to unleash their players anytime soon. For all of his team’s skill and speed, Joel Quenneville still preaches defense first. It’s why talented but one-dimensional goal-scorers such as Brandon Pirri can never stick in Chicago. Babcock is one of the most defensive-minded coaches in the league, too, turning his ridiculously talented Canada team in Sochi into a remarkable — and borderline boring — defensive juggernaut that choked teams out in the neutral zone.

While fans and players love the end-to-end action, the NHL is all about “taking away time and space,” the favored catch-phrase of most coaches, who still cling to the “defense wins championships” model. And it’s worth noting that the only reason North America didn’t advance to the World Cup semifinals was a six-minute second-period stretch against Russia in which the young guns completely broke down defensively.

The NHL at least is more wide open than the European style, where the wider ice makes it easier to keep opponents on the perimeter, far from the scoring areas near the slot.

“The game is a little bit different here than back in Sweden,” swift-skating Hawks defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “It’s more back and forth here. It’s faster here. You want to play like that here. But you also want to control the game.”

For Oilers coach Todd McLellan, it was freeing to let his North America squad run wild. And with Connor McDavid leading the way on both of his teams, McLellan is hoping to resurrect the feel of those Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers teams of the 1980s. But he’s also a realist. And he said holding his players “accountable” defensively always will be a priority.

“What we’re trying to do here is what we’re trying to promote with our club teams,” McLellan said. “We’re not trying to do anything different. It’s just the talent level is a little bit different. Eighty-two games come into play. It’s dramatically different. Flights from Boston back to Edmonton and then to L.A. two days later makes a huge difference. … [The 1980s Oilers] are a good comparison. It’s just that that generation is so long gone. The league is different now.”

But the fact is, players are faster and more skilled than ever. Sure, not everyone is Gretzky or Mark Messier or Jari Kurri, but the overall talent level clearly is better than its ever been. It’s the culture of hockey that has to change for Team North America’s riveting style to become the norm, not the incredibly rare — and incredibly exciting — exception.

“Everybody likes to just have fun on the ice and play that way,” said Hawks and Finland defenseman Ville Pokka, who was turned inside-out by Auston Matthews on one memorable North America rush. “That’s what everybody wants to do.”

Well, almost everybody.

“I just want to win,” Babcock said.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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