There was a time when the Ottawa Senators were considered an extremely skilled team without the discipline, grit, or work ethic to put together a Championship season. It was thought that if only some accountability was instilled in the dressing room that they would be dominant. Bryan Murray’s first stint as coach seemed to affirm it: here was a no-nonsense, traditional hockey guy who could whip young talent like Jason Spezza into shape, a foil to the quiet Jacques Martin, who lifted the team out of obscurity with a sound defensive system and amazing special units organization. When he was promoted to GM, Murray didn’t hesitate to hire a string of authoritarian coaches to presumably throw chairs around the room and call out skilled players in the media. There’s a bit of hindsight and 20/20 vision at play, but it doesn’t seem to have worked out as planned: the team suffered through even bigger and seemingly inexplicable collapses. Under Paddock they went into a death spiral after one of the best starts to a season in NHL history. Each coach was ejected with even less ceremony than the last.
So when I read this article about MacLean bag skating the team, I can’t help but think “here we go again.” The quotes are interchangeable with the ones from seasons past. “It’s a new regime, and we’re not going to be satisfied with not getting points, nor should we,” said [Chris] Philips. “We should have to show that character and not give up, but we have no points to show (for those first two games) and that’s what it’s all about — results.”
We have to play three complete periods. We need to outwork the competition. The veterans need to “step up,” meaning, one presumes, try harder. It’s all in the effort, we’re told.
The problem with making your system all about size, speed, and effort is that it’s exactly the same system almost every other franchise in the league employs. You’re competing for the same resources – big, fast, hard working players – and the same advantages in temporarily outworking an opponent. You might out-compete for a period here or there, or every once in a while get lucky, play against a tired or injured team and out-compete the whole game. But your periods of advantage are sliver-thin. This is professional sports, and everyone is big, fast, and works hard. You won’t have enough advantages over the course of a season to win more games than you lose, especially with a team simultaneously this young and inexperienced and old and tired.
Which is why teams like Detroit and Nashville and talked about as being some of the smartest in the league. They recognize that if they use a different measuring stick, they won’t be competing with as many for the same resources, and they won’t be playing force against force for the same advantages. With Detroit it’s all about puck possession. With Nashville it’s defensive deployment throughout the forward core. The question goes: why wouldn’t you want a small, slow, lazy player if he possesses a skill that serves your system and contributes to a win, especially if those supposed deficiencies mean he can be had for less money? Maybe your system seeks out great stick-handlers or shooters at the expense of size and attitude. Maybe it’s shot-blockers, or the ability to recognize and adapt to a system like Guy Boucher’s. But surely a franchise who wants “guys who work hard” is going to have a hard time finding more hard-working guys than anyone else.
Case in point is Bobby Butler. He isn’t big, he’s not a great skater, and he doesn’t back check. His strengths are on-ice vision, in that he can get into open slots, and a wicked shot. He’s been benched because the team is trying to make him into a more complete player. And it may work. But if you’re paying this kid a million bucks a year to shoot pucks at the net, how is he going to do it from the press box? Could he be used as one cog in a diverse system designed to generate overall offense rather than a facsimile of grunt-like workers? Is giving him sheltered minutes with a true pivot not using him properly, rather than an indication of preferential treatment?
It’s Moneyball all over again: look for in the aggregate what you can’t get in the individual.
It’s only three games into the season, and I like MacLean a lot. I think he’s going to stick in Ottawa, if only because he seems like such an affable guy. The bitter pill of bag skates goes down easier when the coach isn’t a dick about it. But if the reports are any indication (and they may very well not be) this fifth coach in five seasons seems to be off to an identical start as his predecessors. Maybe the next coach will make the team skate twice as hard and far as MacLean. Maybe that will do it.