Size doesn’t matter in today’s speedy NHL
Little Mitch Marner has been hearing the refrain for years. Never mind the magnificence contained within his 61-point rookie season. Every armchair hockey expert has been telling the Maple Leafs winger to add some muscle to a frame that, to certain eyes, seems far too spindly for the NHL grind.
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘He’s got to get bigger. He’s got to get bigger,’ ” said Daniel Noble, the 20-year-old Marner’s Vaughan-based off-season trainer.
But it says something about the current NHL trend that Marner, while he spent considerable time in a gym this summer, didn’t spend it pumping iron for the purposes of pumping up. After spending last season playing at approximately 170 pounds, the six-foot Marner arrived at the Maple Leafs’ Niagara Fallsbased training camp this weekend weighing . . . approximately 170 pounds.
“(Staying around 170) is about keeping him the fastest person on the ice,” Noble said.
It wasn’t long ago, of course, that NHL players rippling with muscle happily announced the considerable gains in body weight produced by their summertime gym sessions. But only a few years after the bigbodied L.A. Kings won a couple of Stanley Cups that had many copycat GMs hankering to play a “heavier” style, the summer of 2017 brought a 180-degree shift in philosophy. Maybe it’s the back-to-back Stanley Cups reeled off by the high-paced Pittsburgh Penguins. Maybe it’s the top-of-the-league annual average salary of $12.5 million recently commanded by Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers prodigy synonymous with blinding speed. Whatever it is, “lighter” has become the new “heavier.” That’s because getting faster has become a non-negotiable pursuit in a league that won’t stop accelerating.
“I think you saw an awful lot of guys trying to do that this summer — get leaner, lighter, faster,” said Connor Carrick, the Maple Leafs defenceman. “That’s just the trend in the league. Guys are flying now. You’ve got to keep up or get left behind.”
Matt Nichol, the former Leafs strength and conditioning coach who invented the Biosteel sports drink and now trains NHLers privately in midtown Toronto, said off-season goal-setting conversations have changed drastically of late.
“It used to be guys would come into the gym and say they wanted to do a mixed bag of, ‘Get stronger,’ ‘Get stronger on the puck, ’ ‘Get tougher in the corners.’ This, that and the other. Now all you hear all day long is ‘Speed.’ ‘Speed, I want to improve my speed.’ It’s changed,” Nichol said. “Even defencemen, they used to want to have a little more armour for battling, a little more muscle. Now it’s just, ‘I’ve got to find a way to keep up with Connor McDavid flying down the wing. I don’t have to worry about battling him, I can’t even catch the guy.’ ”
The results of the new thinking are obvious to anyone who’s been hanging around Leafs camp. Auston Matthews, the reigning rookie of the year who celebrates his 20th birthday on Sunday, looks visibly thinner in the face and torso. Ditto Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly and Carrick and, well, a list of Leafs too long to enumerate.
The trend has even made its way to the Maple Leafs crease, where Frederik Andersen said he spent the summer “getting leaner.”
“Just trying to be quicker,” said Andersen, who said he is also hoping for easier recovery between games thanks to the diminished bodily load.
“Skinnier” and “faster” aren’t synonyms, of course. And there are wide-ranging opinions about how to best become a speedier skater. Some experts insist improving technique is the only answer. Noble said a simple improvement in a skater’s posture can lead to big gains in pace. So it makes sense that Matthews, in addition to getting more svelte, spent time doing Pilates, Matthews said, to help him skate “more upright.”
“If he gets more upright, he’s suddenly able to extend his hip longer and get more powerful and faster,” Noble said. “Imagine a guy the size of Matthews getting faster and faster — he’s just going to be able to control the game more and more.”
Carrick said he took his cue on off-season workout strategy from his hometown Chicago Blackhawks. After the Blackhawks were elim- inated in a first-round sweep by the Nashville Predators, Carrick said he heard more than one member of the roster speak of the need for improved speed. Even Jonathan Toews, the uber-fit captain, acknowledged he’d veered off track in his approach.
“Just the way the speed of the game has really changed these last couple of years, I’ve always been that type of player who likes to play heavy and protect the puck down low in the corners,” said Toews, 29, who vowed to use his summer to rediscover “the speed in my game that I used to have in my younger years.”
Chicago wasn’t alone. After the double Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals were ousted in the second round, Washington GM Brian MacLellan suggested captain Alex Ovechkin reassess his priorities.
“The game’s getting faster. He’s going to have to train in a different way — a more speed way instead of a more power way,” MacLellan said.
Whether or not that message was delivered, this week Ovechkin arrived in Washington looking like a leaner version of his former self. Same goes for Vladimir Tarasenko, the tank-like St. Louis Blues sniper, who recently told reporters he’d dropped off-season poundage, too.
That’s not to say old-fashioned weight lifting has suddenly gone out of vogue.
“Leg strength is huge for speed,” said Clance Laylor, the Torontobased performance coach who has trained P.K. Subban and Joel Ward.
“The minimum standard in our gym is to get to a double-bodyweight back squat. That transfers to faster feet. That transfers to acceler- ation, power and speed.”
But Laylor says it’s a widespread misconception that getting stronger means getting bulkier.
“You don’t need to be bulky and jacked to be strong and fast,” Laylor said.
Indeed, in some NHL circles bulging biceps are being mocked as unnecessary accessories, like a luggage rack on a Formula One car.
“I always tell guys who brag about how big they are in their upper body, ‘As soon as you start skating on your hands, that’s going to become a good idea,’ ” said Ben Prentiss, a Connecticut-based trainer who works with Montreal captain Max Pacioretty.
Said Laylor: “I call it all show and no go. You have a lot of guys, they look good — they have all kinds of muscle — but there’s no speed. Wasted muscle.”
By getting stronger without putting on unwanted muscle, Nichol said athletes can increase their strength and power relative to their body weight, which can translate to improved speed.
Ditto athletes who improve or maintain strength while shedding excess body fat.
“I see that in my gym with the guys — they’re more concerned with weight and body-fat percentage than they have been. But the underlying motivation for that is speed,” said Nichol.
Rielly, for one, said he made considerable sacrifices to arrive at camp as lean as he’s ever looked as an NHLer.
“I didn’t snack at all,” said Rielly. “And if I did, it was just quinoa salads and stuff.”
That’s quinoa, pronounced KEENwah, the protein-rich grain also known to some palates as an in- strument of flavour-less dietary torture.
“Nah,” said Rielly, defending his go-to kibble. “You can thrown a little chicken in there after a workout. It’s alright.”
Laylor said that, done shoddily, training for speed can be a recipe for torn hamstrings and assorted hurt. And even done mostly correctly — given that many protocols call for maximum effort with heavy barbells and weighted sleds — it can come with a chance of injury.
“I’d rather be fast and explosive than slow and healthy,” Carrick said. “I didn’t want to be fast and hurt, but I was willing to take that risk a little bit.”
So was Marner who, despite his schoolboy looks, more than holds his own in the gym. Noble said Marner ended his summertime sessions back-squatting 385 pounds — more than double his bodyweight — for three or four repetitions. That’s not fastest-man-in-the-world strong. (Charlie Francis, the late science-of-speed guru who mentored Laylor, sometimes spoke of the great Ben Johnson back-squatting 600 pounds for sets of six repetitions). Still, it’s clearly strong enough for Marner to be one of the fleetest young playmakers on the planet.
“People are trying to figure out — why is Mitch Marner so successful? He’s got an incredible body-weight-to-strength ratio, incredible,” said Nichol.
“Now, are there guys who are stronger than him? Yeah, lots of them. But they probably also weigh a lot more.”
Which is why little Mitch Marner isn’t planning on getting bigger anytime soon.
The Leafs’ Mitch Marner has had to deal with ‘too small to play in the NHL’ label all his career. His 61-point rookie season silenced his critics.