From what I can tell, most hockey fans fall in two camps when it comes to the concept of effort from professional athletes: those who believe that motivation (and the coach’s role in it) makes a huge difference, and those who believe that all players are trying hard, and the differences from one guy to the next are pretty much negligible. The first crowd believe that a guy like John Tortorella can impact a team by making them “want to play for him,” while the latter thinks you don’t make it to The Show without being a guy who gives his all.
As it goes with most things, the reality is probably somewhere in the middle, and I think both sides make good points that are at least worth considering.
The argument plays out near daily on my Twitter feed thanks to Randy Carlyle’s obsession with work ethic and “compete level.” After the Leafs beat the Coyotes yesterday, the Leafs’ head coach had this to say.
“Well we’re playing better. But we’re making individual mistakes like turnovers with the puck and that’s showing a little bit of [struggling with the] pressure and a little bit of [being] lackadaisical between the ears. We’re not bearing down hard enough.
Lackadaisical between the ears, not bearing down hard enough. These things are secondary to the personnel and the system, but if those are both in place and not changing, it’s real easy to highlight effort as the problems. In fact, as a coach, it’s just about your only option. Carlyle is basically saying he’s not changing his system, and until the roster changes, that’s all he can attempt to change.
When it comes to effort, you immediately have to accept that it’s not a concept worth laughing off because playoffs are undeniably faster, more physical and more intense. All players have another gear than the one you’re seeing in game 50. And guys like Alexei Kovalev, my go-to example of “uber talented, plays when he wants to,” quite obviously exist. So, it’s not an entirely futile effort on Carlyle’s part.
Some rare coaches do possess the ability to inspire guys to play harder. Guys like John Tortorella use fear (“I better find that extra gear or I’ll be benched/scratched/punched”), some use friendship (“player’s coaches” make guys feel included, intrinsically want to do better for the good of the group), and others use a mix of both.
I’ve played for a couple guys that did the opposite of “want to make me play,” which isn’t to say I went out on the ice, crossed my legs at center and built a snowman, I just didn’t feel that extra “something” that’s so necessary in hockey to win those extra inches that can end up mattering so much.
The problem with Randy Carlyle’s reliance on “effort” as the catch-all for the teams successes and failures is the reality that your team simply cannot play like they do in playoffs for 82 games. You just can’t try your absolute hardest, even though you may be someone who intends to, because it’s absolute draining both physically and mentally. To be among the best teams in the league you have to be a group that has the skill to win when you’re not at your best. It’s those games when you have a skill player make a skilled move few other players can and score a goal on a night your team didn’t bring their best that helps you stay atop the standings.
For Carlyle to imply that their team is good enough to win only when their team is “trying hard,” he’s implying they’re simply not a good enough team. You can only get that extra special effort from guys so often. If Carlyle’s trying to get it every night, he’s going to wear his crew out, and be less likely to be able to find it down the stretch.