Yesterday my Twitter feed flared up after the release of a column about Phil Kessel and how he looked “sluggish” in his return to practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs post-Olympics. I’m not a huge fan of promoting stuff I think isn’t very good (for what should be obvious reasons), but I can’t deny the concept was pretty silly. The guy was probably right, by the way, but it was oh-come-on-able for other reasons.
The NHL’s hottest player in 2014 goes to the Olympics and looks electric while leading the tournament in scoring, then flies home from Russia for his first practice back (which he wasn’t yet obligated to attend), and gets a column written about how he didn’t look up to par.
So fine, silly.
But even if Phil hadn’t just done all those things I rattled off above, he would have to practice in a beer helmet filled with umbrella drinks to get singled out for his work ethic. Not only is he the team’s best player, he’s one of the league’s best, and he works his tail off in games. There’s a reason Allen Iverson was all shocked in his infamous PRACTICE? interview. He was a rare talent who consistently brought it in games. And you wanna ask him about PRACTICE?
Unfortunately for the rest of us mere mortals, we don’t all get the No no no, you take it easy, as long as YOU’RE happy treatment. Kessel is a rare case, one of maybe 20 guys in the league who basically have immunity from their coach’s occasional lack of diplomacy. On the other side of the coin, some guys have the privilege of becoming the coach’s whipping boy, and whooo doggy is it a long season when you earn that title by (I see you, Drill Wreckers).
So without further ado, introducing EPE, or Expected Practice Effort. Let’s look at what coaches generally expect for effort in practice out of each type of generalized player, and how one becomes a coach’s target. …Generally.
Expected Practice Effort, or EPE
This is your Kessel class, your irreplaceable talents that you need to keep happy. They’re just so damn fun to watch play that teammates usually can’t muster up the energy to be jealous of their EPE, which is nil.
BY ROSTER SPOT
Fourth-line grinders & enforcers
While the actual expectation on them is fairly high, it doesn’t matter – it’s never an issue. I can’t think of one teammate in that roster spot who didn’t work his tail off unnecessarily hard in practice (which is annoying for everyone else in battle drills). These guys know if they slack off they’ll get the Beyoncé treatment from a coach – “I can have another you, in a minute, matter fact, he’ll be here in minute.”
Second and third pair D-men
Targetable for coaches for sure (so, fairly high EPE), but between practices generally being easier for d-men (it’s true, zip it), and the fact that d-men generally seem more intrinsically motivated, they rarely become a target for coaches rants about effort.
Top pair d-men
It sort of depends where they stand in the “status” categories (further down). These guys are usually extremely talented, and since d-men don’t always have to do all the skating of the forwards, sometimes it looks to easy for them and they’ll get singled out. But again – it all comes down to their status. Lidstrom probably got passes Byfuglien doesn’t.
As long as these guys aren’t obnoxiously flying in the face of coaches desire to run an up-tempo practice, extremely low EPE. Produce, and you’ll be left alone. (Also, they’re delicate flowers.)
Second and third liners
The whipping boy is coming out of this group, somehow some way. Coaches seem to think this is the only group they’re really allowed to coach. The highest EPE. No “grit and heart” points, no “world’s most talented” points, floating forward labels.
These guys are basically the coaches age, have two kids, a paid-off Mercedes, and a lot of respect. Basically 100% exempt from having to try (don’t wanna burn them out!). Still eligible for scorn when they mess up plays, but that’s about it.
Highly touted prospect with a bright future? Can’t do any wrong unless you’re insufferably cocky. Kid gloves treatment, low EPE.
Trying to make it on merit? Your EPE has been strapped to a rocket ship aimed at Mars.
Usually a coach has chosen hard workers and people he likes as captains, so unless they’re completely screwing the pooch, they’re fine. Middling EPE (for setting an example’s-sake), but they probably won’t hear about it if they slack off.
So the next question is…given the EPE expectations of different players, how do you become the whipping boy?
“We’re brothers at war and this is serious”
These guys are your coach’s favorite – your David Clarksons, David Backes’ and so on. Zero percent chance of earning whipping boy status.
“I like to play pranks and laugh and stuff”
It all boils down to this – does your coach have a sense of humor or no? It’s all or nothing with these players. If coach likes a laugh, they’re saved. If they play for Tortorella, they’re doomed.
Best way to avoid whipping boy status?
Just be a war vet who wears the “C” at 36 years old who still gives it his all and calls out other teammates to work harder.
How you get singled out, bag-skatted, and verbally abused on a near-daily basis?
I suggest being mid-line player (playing a line down because you’re not “meeting coach’s expectations”) who’s a second-or-third year guy in the league who likes to mess around and has the attention span of a fruit fly.
Basically, be Nazem Kadri.
Your expected practice effort is never spoken of, but every day you step on that ice you pretty much know where you stand. The more secure your spot on the team, the more you can relax, and the more the gap in your play will widen over the guys who’ve stumbled into the high EPE roles.
The fun part about this time of year is that coaches stop working guys so hard, so everyone can relax a bit. They’ve played a lot of games, they need to be rested for the playoffs, so practice becomes more about maintenance than improving your cardio.