There seems to be one area where I disagree with a lot of the player analysis I read this days: I don’t believe that when a player is used in a way that best fits his skill set that the perception of him as a player should suffer. What I mean is, if a player is started in the offensive zone more than the next guy, that doesn’t mean he’s worse defensively, it usually means his coach wants to put him in the position to do the hardest thing in hockey: create goals. He wants that, because he believes he’s good at it. Plenty of mid-level guys can prevent goals just fine.
But, it’s more than just the word “sheltered” for a guy getting a ton of o-zone starts that tweaks me a bit. This morning I was having a Twitter chat about the 2013-14 Calder Trophy front-runners (Olli Maata, not mentioned again in this piece, is among names worth mentioning). Ondrej Palat has been on a tear, but he still finds himself six points behind Nate MacKinnon, who at 18 also has the name caché of, oh I dunno, Nate MacKinnon. One argument I heard this morning, which was a totally fine point, is that MacKinnon’s higher totals have come in part due to being used on the powerplay over a minute more per game on average than Palat.
But it seems this is held against him, because who knows what Palat would do if afforded the same opportunity? Palat might have more points with more PP time, sure.
But being on a hockey team means that while you’re competing against your opponents, you’re also competing against your teammates for ice time, powerplay shifts and all those other snausages coaches use to reward their players like dogs for doing the right things.
While you might think Nathan MacKinnon has been handed more PP minutes because of his name, he’s also earned that name by being awesome at hockey for years. The fact that he’s getting those minutes at 18 (Palat is 22) speaks to how often he’s beat out other opponents for those minutes in the past. He deserves them on both merit and the name he’s made for himself. If Palat hasn’t played in a way that earns him first powerplay unit minutes, that’s on him.
By the same token, if you want to argue that Palat has more even-strength points than MacKinnon (39 to 37) because he’s earned more even-strength ice time than MacKinnon (by about 60 minutes), I can totally dig that argument for him.
Sometimes you just have bad luck and play for a team that has so many great offensive players that you can’t get a shot (whether that’s PP minutes or raw ice time or whatever), but that’s part of sports. You play well when you do get your chances, and you hope to earn more. You’ve got to be better than your opponents, but this isn’t house hockey – you have to out-earn your teammates for the chances to succeed too.
Most of this stems from my contention that creating goals is the hardest thing to do in hockey. You can’t sit back and let the play come to you, you have to be taking it to the other team. Being smart positionally and working hard is not on par with that, which is why Jay McClement doesn’t earn Patrick Kane money.
There are some players who are so defensively bad that you don’t want to put them out in the d-zone. I totally acknowledge that. That select portion of the population can be called “sheltered” if we have to use that word.
But for the most part, I don’t think the perception of a player should be tainted because his coach has seen his skill set in practices and in games and chooses to maximize the value his team gets from those. Beating out your teammates to earn more powerplay time isn’t a knock to me, the same way that being started in the o-zone isn’t (for the most part).
Inner-team competitions exist in every dressing room. Winning those battles just puts you in position to earn more snausage than the next guy.