Usually I write about goaltending. This one, though, is about forward line construction and “chemistry.” I’ve been ruminating over this since my daughters started to play hockey. Why is it that some line combinations work, and others don’t? As a Philly resident who roots for the Flyers, continues to support my boyhood Rangers, and has a secret crush on the Montreal Canadiens, it pains me to say that I am finally putting this in writing because I can’t wait to see how this Sidney Crosby-Phil Kessel thing pans out in Pittsburgh. Really.
One of the reasons I love hockey is that the flow of the game is unique. Everything moves. A baseball moves, but baseball players are mostly stationary. (My oldest daughter is convinced that none of the players on the field ever move.) In football, when a quarterback has “chemistry” with a wide receiver, he is often throwing from a near-stationary position to a specifically planned “spot” where he expects the receiver to be. There’s continuous motion in basketball, but the ball is usually completely in the control of the person delivering a pass, and many of the plays are set pieces.
Hockey players, on the other hand, are on skates, and constantly move in all possible directions. The puck slides and bounces and rolls, and the players use sticks to control it instead of their hands. There are boards, rather than boundaries, which keeps play continuous. More than any other sport, a successful play in hockey requires continuous, variable, coordinated motion between its participants. When it works, it’s beautiful.
For years now, Sidney Crosby has been the best player in the NHL. For an equal number of years, the ongoing storyline out of Pittsburgh is that it’s hard to find linemates for him. That’s why I’m so fascinated to watch Phil (“If He Was Russian We’d Call Him Enigmatic”) Kessel get his opportunity on Crosby’s wing after an offseason trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Say what you will about Phil Kessel and his questionable defensive prowess, there is little doubt that he is a supreme hockey talent, and that he can score.
What’s the big deal about playing with Sidney Crosby, though, and what difference does it make that Phil Kessel will get a chance to play with him? Couldn’t I just go out there, skate to the far post, and let Sidney bounce goals in off my butt all season? Clearly, it isn't that simple. Here’s Rick Nash, who is really good at hockey, talking about how hard it actually is: (from this article, written during the 2014 Sochi Olympics):
“I think he’s a tough guy to keep up with,” says Rick Nash, who was tried with three separate Crosby combinations in Vancouver. “He’s so fast. The way he thinks about the game seems like it’s far beyond everyone else’s process.”
“Fast.” “Process.” How he “thinks about the game.” Nash is talking about Sid’s core characteristics as a hockey player. For lack of a better term, it’s an all-inclusive definition of pace. Speed is only part of the equation. There are other factors that contribute to a player’s overall “pace.” Does a player move mostly “downhill,” shoulders square to the opposing end, or does he constantly shift direction from point A to point B? Does he have a quick release on his shot? Does he prefer to deliver passes or shoot while moving, or is he more effective if he can establish a position and survey the ice? How decisive is he, once he decides on a play?
The essence of “chemistry,” I think, is pace-compatibility. Instinct is better than calculation. Think of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. They’re identical twins. They don’t seem to think. They just… do. Anaheim has Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, who aren't related but basically should be. Even the youngest youth teams seem to have kids that play their best when specific teammates are on the ice, and lines that perform better than the sum of the individual skills of the players involved. If a line is constructed of three forwards who can play at, or reasonably near, the same overall pace as each other, then each individual can play at his own instinctive pace, both with and without the puck. This should make each player more effective. If each individual is able to work closer to his or her own potential, then the overall performance of the inclusive unit is enhanced.
I’m sure there’s some theory of economics that addresses this concept. I know that the analytics folks attempt to quantify effects of player interaction with WOWY (With or Without) statistics. Maybe the primary root cause of these measurable effects, for better or worse, is pace-compatibility.
In other words, if you are going to play with Sidney Crosby, you have to keep up with his overall pace, no matter whether you’re a shooter/scorer on one wing, or a grinder on the other. It’s not just for your own good, either. If Crosby has to modify his game speed and decision-making to “make his linemates better,” then he isn't able to play up to his own potential, and that’s not good for the team as a whole. If you have Sidney Crosby on your team, you want him playing as close to his potential as he possibly can. Having Phil Kessel on his wing might just do that, no matter who plays with them.
Yeah, I know, it’s only preseason. The early returns are pretty cool if you’re a Penguins fan, though, at least on offense. Sid and Phil skate fast, attack continuously, and create a two-pronged threat to score quickly, from anywhere, at any time. Both seem to be comfortable, and I don't think that’s an accident. Maybe, for the first time, each has a truly pace-compatible playing partner.
Bottom line? Crosby and Kessel are going to be fun to watch if you're from Pittsburgh, and begrudgingly fun to watch if you’re from anywhere else.
All they need is a nickname. Other than the one we're going to give them in Philly.