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.

Comments (10)

  1. Carlyle strikes me as the hockey world’s equivalent of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. Not exactly what one would describe as a “critical thinker”. But he’ll continue getting large paychecks because there’s not many objective metrics to evaluate coaching performance.

    I’ve been blown away by Roy’s candid and thoughtful take on things in interviews this year. Doesn’t seem to fall into the shootout win/loss overvaluation and is an encyclopedia of stats… content instead of cliches. A few weeks ago he was doing a ballpark estimate on points during a game and figured they’d need to play about .600 hockey to ensure a playoff berth. Can you imagine any other coach admitting they need to win less than 100 percent of their games? I believe people respond better to carrots than sticks, and I’d give Roy the Jack Adams on interviews alone.

    • I too noticed that Roy’s interviews seem really intelligent and aware of reality. Considering his reputation for excessive behavior from time to time I was quite taken with how well thought out and reasoned his thoughts are in interviews. Depending on how Colorado does this year, I think we could see a new generation of former players as coaches knocking at the door soon. I for one, would welcome it.

  2. This actually reminds me of a theory I had watching the 90′s Red Wings and Scotty Bowman. They were always so dominant during the regular season, but flamed out pretty often in the playoffs. Bowman was able to get so much out of them during the regular season that they didn’t really have an extra gear higher that other teams had. So what looked like a significant gap in overall team ability was much smaller.

  3. It reminds me of every job i’ve ever worked at. Some places, few places actually, have people at the top that really KNOW how to get the best out of their employees. They motivate, they encourage, they allow a little bit of off scripting every now and then, but they always maintain a certain level of professionalism that keeps you from getting too out of line. Point is, they utilize people to the individual’s maximum potential. It makes work, less worky, and more interesting.

    Then there’s the remaining 80-90% of employers that think the best way to get stuff done is to push harder, yell louder, stomp their feet, and generally act displeased all the time because they think it will make you try harder. Im honestly convinced that most manager positions are filled with the biggest whiners because people just start saying yes to their demands in order to stop hearing their voice.

    The NHL, it’s just like real life…

    • The NHL, it’s just like real life… I like it! Except the crowds don’t cheer us on and the fighting penalties are kinda harsh and from what I read on Bourne’s post about pay a few days ago, the money is a wee bit less!!!

  4. My 11 year old kid’s coach tells the kids after every loss they should just try harder. Shoot more. Always harping on more shots.

    Gets real old fast with a 3-20 team that has talent, but is not being shown even a simple breakout in practice. Or a PP. Or a PK. All they do is lines and hard skating. To improve stamina (?????) And this in a fair play league he plays favourites.

    So if an 11 yr old peewee can tune out a coach that spews garbage and the players see right through it I am sure a player on the Leafs see it too.

    Told my son about all the old bosses I have had in my work career, he will get throughout he year and start again next year. A waste for my 11 year old.

    Also a wasted year for Kadri and Kessel. I sympathize with them and I hate the leafs!

    Bad coaching can do so much harm to kids and pro’s…..

  5. sigh…. proofread!!!! ..he will get through the year…

  6. I’m pretty confident thats like the hundredth time Gardiner has been the thumbnail for a post.

  7. The level of talent in the league is so high that it’s hard to gain a big edge. But it’s very easy to lose a big edge. IOW, if everyone’s at 95%, then getting to 100% is difficult and still may not be enough… but when you don’t show up and go out at 50%, that’s when you get eaten alive.

    I think this just trips up a lot of coaches, much less fans. You notice when “compete level” is lacking much more easily that you notice when it’s there, so it’s easy to hang that tag on any loss of a game or of a faceoff or of a puck battle. And the reason why you see lesser teams outwork a team that’s more talented is that even the best team isn’t *that* much more talented than the worst team, not in absolute terms. No amount of effort will save the worst team in my rec league from losing to the best one. The minimum threshold of skill just to get to the NHL ensures that no team there is truly five or six times better than the worst. If you rated them EA-style, maybe you’d have a team at 90 and a team at 75; in a rec league, the same gap would be a team at 18 and a team at 3.

    But coaches do have a point – when the gap’s much narrower, then something like effort may well make the difference, so you’d better put in the effort and not take anyone lightly.

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