For whatever reason, it’s basically sacrilege to imply that a professional hockey player didn’t try as hard as he possibly could’ve on a play. There’s this weird perception of nobility around players of the game, like every guy made The Show on the heels of hard work and good ‘ol fashioned “want.”
Well, no, some athletes are just more talented than others, and they make the NHL without killing themselves at every opportunity.
If you can believe that (and you should, because you’re a reasonable person), then you can believe that teams, as a whole, are not going as hard as they possibly can every single night.
It’s not that they aren’t “trying” per se, but instead it’s mentally tough to make yourself work your hardest at every moment at anything. So when there’s mental lapses – say, a Tuesday night in Florida where you can’t stop staring at shiny things in the stands – teams aren’t always pressing as hard as they possibly could.
The best part about being on a great team is that you don’t have to have your best stuff every night to win. If you heavily out-talent your opponents it’s possible to have the majority of your guys in neutral, then have Evgeni Malkin (or some other offensive star) do something otherworldly, and still leave with your two points. This is what separates the teams that contend for the President’s Trophy from the pack below – they often win when they’re comparably bad and even when they’re occasionally lazy.
I still think back to what Dean Lombardi said about the Marian Gaborik acquisition:
He has something we don’t have. We don’t need him to be ‘that guy’ every night but you’re going to have to win us a game here or there when we don’t have our game going.
That’s what Chicago has done. Chicago can [struggle] and then [Patrick] Kane can just do something off the charts and they go home with the two points.
When a team doesn’t have the talent, a coach has to ask for more from his guys every night, and “no nights off” makes the season a mental slog. A good coach behind a good team knows that you need to keep your foot off the gas now and then to avoid over-heating the engine. The Detroit Red Wings have had so many injuries that Mike Babcock has had to keep the pedal down, which is a large reason why I don’t think the Red Wings, even if they do sneak into playoffs, have much of a shot. He’s a great coach, but that team’s been ridden into the ground just to keep moving at a decent pace, and it hasn’t been by choice.
You often see great teams struggle for stretches of the regular season. This year the Chicago Blackhawks left with two points in five of their 14 January games. The Kings had a run through January and February where they took two points home once in 10 tries. While there’s obviously other causes than “weren’t trying that hard,” I think most people would agree that these are top-tier teams that have a lot more to offer than that, regardless of where they’re playing or who’s hurt.
My Dad’s made mention in the past of the Islanders dynasty years, and how “over” the regular season they got after having won the Cup a few times. They won the President’s Trophy in 80-81 with 110 points after winning the Cup the previous season. Coming off a short off-season, that’s pretty impressive. After another short off-season, they won another President’s Trophy (118 points) and another Cup. After another off-season, he says it was really hard to get the guys to go all-out until things mattered, and Arbor asked them to less often. They were good enough to “coast” into playoffs, which they did (on the heels of 96 points, 22 less than the previous season)…and they won another Cup.
When you know what it takes win a Stanley Cup in the post-season and you’ve already accomplished that goal, it’s just a bit harder to stay “on” all the time. It’s a bit harder for coaches to ask guys to be too, as much as they’d never admit it.
The thing is, it’s not exactly easy to fully “coast” into the post-season and expect things to click. With less than 15 games left to go, you want to see your roster getting healthy (which means taking extra precaution with injuries), you want to see guys play with a little more intensity, and you want to have your lines and pairings solidified. Time for experimenting is almost over.
A couple clear contenders have started to roll – the Bruins have won nine in a row, the Sharks six – and I think we can expect to see some of the other legit Cup threats start doing the same. Around now guys start to eye the standings, and the realization that every point matters starts to really sink in. They’ve mattered all along, of course, but there’s just something about seeing the standings shuffle towards the end of the season that evokes a little more desperation.
As we see good teams start to press more moving towards game 82, I tend not to believe that they’re suddenly “peaking,” as the common hockey end-of-season axiom goes. I think they’re good teams consciously pushing themselves into form. That’s partially why a team desperate for points towards the end of the season may find they’ve left it too late. You’re not catching many teams napping from here on in.