We’ve reached the point of the NHL season where some players are about to have a terrible, awful epiphany: “Oh crap. We suck, don’t we?” I’m not sure that any NHL team is quite there yet (maybe the Flames?), but you rarely make the switch overnight. Suspicions slowly start to grow until one day, it happens. “Oh #$%&.”

I was kicking this around in my head after getting the following two tweets:

For starters: I would say players have a pretty good idea, plus-or-minus a few spots where their team is at heading into the season. “We’re going to be a bubble team,” “We have a legit shot to win the conference,” “We’re going to have to be our best every night if we want to be anything other than awful.” The last one basically equals “I’m aware we’re awful.

But as the schedule moves along and your record takes shape and you consider how you think your team has played, that’s when it hits most guys. “Dammit, we’ve played well and we’re still only .500. We’re in trouble.”

To answer the second question I can definitively say at this point that no, neither the Leafs or Wild know their teams are going to miss playoffs. They may be in the suspicious group, but anyone can win in the NHL on any night, and I’m sure they’re still holding out hope for a few game run. It’s when it’s too late for that run to even matter that you lick the stamp and mail it in.

When you finally accept that your team isn’t going to see the post-season, a snowball of negativity takes out the last leg your garbage team is standing on, and what looks like tanking begins.

Motivation

What reason does a player on a long-term contract have to put himself on the line (“take the hit to make the play!”) once he realizes his team is gross and the year is a write-off? He doesn’t want to embarrass himself of course, so he’s still going to play hockey, but lay his teeth on the line to block a shot? No sir. That puck is getting through to the net. There’s no reason for a player like that to rush back from injury either, so you end up playing with a bare bones roster.

And what reason does a player with an expiring contract have to put the team before himself? Guys may start keeping the puck instead of passing, taking long long shifts, or simply carrying the puck instead of dumping it in when a forecheck could easily be established. It’s an unhealthy environment when players are solely doing things to up their own stock, as opposed to helping the team win.

What reason does anyone have to do anything other than improve their personal lot on the team once hope is lost? Really, the only other goal is to avoid total embarrassment as a team (pride, etc, etc), get some more ice time, and win because it makes practice more fun the next day. It’s every man for himself, Lord of the Flies-style.

Once you realize you’re on a garbage team, the selfishness and negativity only drags your team father down.

Because of that reality, coaches logically try to fight the idea that you’re a bad team and things are heading downhill. They’ll tell you you’ve been ripped off by the refs, you haven’t got the bounces, and you just have to buy in for the team to have success. But when you get to where we’re at right now, with 20-25% of the games already in the books, you can feel it slipping away, as can coaches with their jobs.

Some teams have bad starts and recover. Others have bad starts, lose a couple more and switch out of team mode. We’re right around that point now, where teams who got off to rough starts need to get some wins in the bank, or players will come to the conclusion that hope is lost, and the season’s as good as over. That’s the mid-season fight.

No pressure or anything. Just win soon or write the year off. The mind is a funny thing.

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More on this in today’s podcast.