Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Elusive Power Forward

When was the first time we heard this term? Power forward? What does it mean?

I can vaguely remember my introduction to the concept of power forwarding around the time of Kevin Stevens. Kevin Stevens was a power forward – no other way to describe him. At that time in the NHL, one could throw around several names of forwards who one would put into the power bucket: Rick Tocchet, Cam Neely, Gary Roberts and an up-and-coming Keith Tkachuk were all the prototypes.

It seems that nowadays the lines are more blurred. Beyond Iginla, who is a productive power forward anymore?

There are big forwards. Are they power forwards? Oleg Kvasha wasn't, Nik Antropov isn't. No, power forward goes beyond size. As the name implies, the defining characteristic is power.

In a bit of lazy research for the piece (I never rely on Wikipedia in my day job), I came across this entry on the definition of power forward, at least as far as concerned editors and readers on the internet's encyclopedia are concerned. The definition is certainly worth a peek, but what interested me most was the ensuing list of current power forwards in the league:

* Dustin Penner, Edmonton Oilers
* Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
* Shane Doan, Phoenix Coyotes
* Brenden Morrow, Dallas Stars
* Keith Tkachuk, St. Louis Blues.
* Rick Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets
* Brendan Shanahan, NY Rangers
* Gary Roberts, Tampa Bay Lightning
* Tomas Holmstrom, Detroit Red Wings
* Mike Knuble, Philadelphia Flyers
* Johan Franzen, Detroit Red Wings
* Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning
* Milan Lucic, Boston Bruins

Two things strike me as odd about this list:

1) It is very short

2) There are only 2 Europeans

This led me through a whole range of thoughts. The obvious knee-jerk reaction is to criticise the make-up of the list itself (In a departure from my usual MO, I decided not to take this route).

Next, I found myself thinking about the definition that would lead one to posting an exclusive list that at once contains league MVP-types like Iginla and Lecavalier with virtual nobodies Lucic and Penner (I guess i couldn't resist chipping in on that front after all).

Ultimately, that led to a very short, and extremely uninteresting post (IMHO). The final stage of questioning has led me to the line of thinking that the power forward notion itself is outdated and even obsolete. The interesting part, I suppose, here is the factors that have led to this change over the past few years.

The passing of the power forward

There is no doubt that there once were power forwards in the league. There is no doubt that players like those famous names at the top of this post still skate in the NHL, and that there will always be players like that. However, what I think sets apart the "power forwards" that remain in the league is their talent – that is to say, they can do more than add power. Lecavalier is an all-around talent, Iginla can skate and shoot extremely well, Shanahan is a smart player.

In the past, specifically in the 1990s, there were forwards who could neither skate, nor pass particularly well – players who were happy to hack at a puck all night to get some goals. Todd Bertuzzi springs to mind.

These players were propagated by need. The league was in a new generation of defensive focus, together with better goaltenders with equipment almost twice as big as before. For years, plan A to score goals was to put a big man in the goalie's line of sight and send in a low shot. More than this though, the power forward was required to overcome the unbelievable level of hooking and obstruction that was being allowed to pass for hockey.

With the temporary implementation of the rules of hockey from the time of the lock-out up until present day, the need for power forwards has diminished. As smaller players are no longer hooked and held back, they can begin to show their own merits in the league out-competing many a power forward for a job. Incidentally, the "power forwards", never mistaken for the fleet of foot, also lamented the crack-down on hooking, as they were largely no longer capable of making any meaningful contribution at the defensive end of the ice either.

In addition to the change in rules, there has also been a general change in ethic across the NHL. The league is trying its utmost to make games flow better. Gone are breaks at every face off for the big oafs to rest. Going are opportunities to fight and intimidate. With them even more reasons to choose to employ an otherwise inadequately skilled hockey player.

The rise of the star player
Simultaneous with the extinction of the power forward (at least those with a dearth of skill) has been the rise of the all-rounder, the multi-purpose player. This is the rise of the star player. After all those years of GMs repeating the mantra of picking the best player, it seems to have rubbed off on coaches (well some, anyway).

The star players are the forwards that can be deployed in any game situation. They are the names at the top of the team scoring list. And they are the ones at the top of the ice time in all scenarios.

When I watch my Habs in important scoring situations I see Koivu, Kovalev and Higgins or Plekanec on the ice. If it's getting hairy at the end of the third and we need to hang on, strangely, its the same guys. What makes it strange is not that it is counter intuitive or anything, because playing the best players makes loads of sense to me on the level of intuition; but that it is something I am not used to after living through the trap years, the obstruction generation.

The rise of the star player is something that excites me. I think people around the league are generally excited about this too – that is unless your GM is still behind the times and signing the Bertuzzis of the league... Why wouldn't I be excited? Why wouldn't I want to watch Kovalev kill a penalty instead of Kostopoulos?

But how did this change come about?

To be perfectly honest, I am not entirely sure. If I were to venture a guess, I would say it has something to do with the quality of the young talent coming through into the league. Players like Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin just should never be on the bench. I think coaches with established players of similar ilk (your Kovalevs, Alfredssons, Zetterbergs) have been affirmed in thinking what they might have always thought about playing the best guys.

But, this of course has always happened when strong generations came through the league. That's why I think the other factor in play here is the general trend towards youth in the league. It's simple, I guess. Young legs can be asked to do more. What's more the old guys are being asked to compete with young legs and so are becoming fitter themselves (Chelios?)

A combination of talent and fitness doesn't sound like a mind-blowing concept, but the fact is that in this league it was, not even that long ago. The move to youth and as a consequence fitness shows huge promise for the game, in my opinion. And as time goes by and skilled players can no longer be shown up on fitness, then we should hopefully see more stars like Ovechkin and Zetterberg running amok.

What of the coveted power forward for the Habs?

As always I come home to the Habs in these thought journeys. When it comes to this elusive power forward we are always on the verge of signing, trading for, concocting in a lab in the Saguenay, I think the time has passed.

That is not to say I don't think we'll have big players – we will. However, I just don't think they'll be able to make the league, much less the resurgent Glorieux on the basis of size alone.

I think some of the prospects may well have been prototypical power forwards in the past, but ultimately if Latendresse and Pacioretty don't skate in the NHL, the Canadiens won't build a strategy around their stationary masses.

Similarly, I think the time has come to stop worrying about the statures of our top two centres. Basically they should be judged on the sum of what they can bring to a hockey game (if I were being my normal difficult self, I might also add that both Koivu and Plekanec have more power on the puck than most players 6 inches closer to the rafters anyway).

As with anything else, I will gladly take thee size as a bonus if everything else is equal though. Give me a bigger Saku, I won't complain. But, I'd still rather have Saku Koivu than his brother, even if he is smaller, because he is strong and creative on the puck despite what his biometrics would suggest, but he is also faster and has a better handle on how the game flows.

Anyway, the summer rolls on, the power forward continues to elude us, and I, for one, couldn't care less about that...

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