On Hard Work and Diminishing Advantages

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.

5 thoughts on “On Hard Work and Diminishing Advantages

  1. I dont really take issue with the Butler scratching. If Ottawa wants to win a cup, they wont be able to do so if their top six includes a 20-25 goal scorer who plays as poorly as Butler does away from the puck. Might as well get it over with now, I think Butler still understands hes a prospect. Hes only played about 40 games in the NHL. If we are considering this year to be all about player development isnt this good for his development in the long term? At the end of the day baseball isnt really a team sport. You can plug guys with specific skillsets deficiencies into certain situations. This doesnt exist in hockey, with the exception of some 4th line players or 6th/7th defensemen. Very rarely do championship teams have any top 6 forwards who dont skate very well, arent physical, cant defend and score in the 20-25 goal range. The issues Butler has are preventing him from reaching that next level offensively, its not just his play away from the puck that could benefit.

  2. What are you did to hockey, Moneyball!?!? And now a reply without having seen that book or read that movie (it’s called “an informed response” people)

    Some good points are raised here but I find hockey as a team sport too finicky to fit into these deep metrics. Baseball, by its very nature, takes to it the best. I think, sure, there are plenty of clichés when
    MacLean talks about his philosophy but that (built by Murray) Ducks team that pretty much steamrolled Ottawa in the cup finals a few years back, in my opinion,
    possessed a lot of the characteristics that you are downplaying as old fashioned. They were harder working, meaner, skated harder, hit more and to a man played a more of a “200
    Foot game” than those Sens who were used to winning games 6-4 and did not have to do.
    I think that kind of mentality can be taught and I think that’s what he’s trying to do. Look, I don’t want to sound/look like Mike Milbury but even last night, after Neal’s huge hit
    the team played bigger. On the other side, if you want to talk old fashioned, notice how that spark didn’t really come from Konopka’s, kind of forced looking fight. I don’t know…there’s no science to it. It doesn’t sound like poetry when explained by the coach but I don’t really know if Detroit is entirely using a “different metric” so much as they have the team that buys into this 200 foot game plan thing the most…that and the added bonus of having a few impending first ballot hall of famers on the team (all of whom play as sterling defense as they do offense). Like it or not, the Bruins, B Hawks, Pens, Wings etc…teams of grit and character. And trust me I HATE admitting that about a couple of those teams.
    Detroit also makes me think of, former Nepean Raider, Steve Yzerman. He had all the attributes of Bobby Butler that you mention but with worlds more pedigree but didn’t win a damn thing until he changed the way he plays to emerge as one of the best two way players ever. I think the tradition of that largely continues in Detroit. Even down to the team first style contracts. What’s goin’ on in Motown? Why isn’t Pavel Datsyuk making 11 million dollars a year? That aint moneyball that’s just “Alfiesque” special (not that I really know what money ball is…but im going to assume Jeff Skinner is Moneyball). Meanwhile, the opposite of what I’m talking about is why we get Nikita Filatov for a 3rd rounder, why Heatley is on his 3rd team in as many years and why Sidney Crosby and Malkin have a cup and Ovechkin and Semin don’t. Is it because of old fashioned curmudgeons like Murray preaching character and responsibility? Partly I suppose. Maybe some of them know what they are doing. I’m no Dom Cherries or nothing, though I do go on and on about how good looking Jordan Staal is, but I do think two way responsibility wins champeenships the majority of the time. Hopefully, yeah, like you say, the message sticks with MacLean this time around. Again, I don’t know what makes sense half the time in hockey and there have been a lot of trends since the lockout. One year its Boucher vs. Niemi in the finals and high priced high skill goalies are a thing of the past the next year its Luongo vs. Thomas in a seven game series. Strong two way play seems to be one element that sticks around. I think a rebuild is a time when the weather is right to instill that kind of thing in a team. That and to play exactly like Detroit.

    • Speaking of Detroit & MacLean’s connection to that team, I thought he was brought in to help the Senators become a skilled puck possession team like the Red Wings.

      That said, if MacLean is openly saying all the right things about ‘grit’ & ‘playing in both ends’, yada yada, he should also openly say that the players need to have fun and have the chance to be creative. Black Aces, I think, posted a YouTube compilation of some of Pavel Datsyuk’s ‘how’d-he-do-dee’ plays, and they are excellent. But he was able to make those excellent plays, to demonstrate his excellence, by (in part) being given the leeway by Babcock to make them. And he makes mistakes, too. Last season he had 38 giveaways (all stats from NHL.com for what they’re worth) in 56 games, which in a full 82-game season would have been 56 giveaways (0.679 giveaways/game). The year before (the 2009-10 season) he had 73 giveaways in 82 games (0.89/game), leading the team in giveaways. The year before that (2008-09), he had 50 in 81 games (). So lots of mistakes (more in some years than others), some of which have surely led to goals against, but Babcock has let him have his head. (This suggests to me that the problem is not that the team ought to display ‘grit’ or ‘character’, but that Murray is over-involved in managing how the coaching staff sends a message about ‘accountability’ to the players; and if he is over-involved in that respect, he is probably over-involved in others, too.)

      For comparison’s sake, Spezza had 62 giveaways in 62 games last season, 58 in 60 games the year before, and three years ago 81 in 82 games. Not to go on too long (ha!), but he also had many, many fewer takeaways than Datsyuk (Datsyuk had more takeaways than giveaways in each of the three seasons I looked at; with Spezza the opposite was the case). Criticism of Spezza’s creative play may at times be misplaced, but you can see why, even though Datsyuk makes ‘fancy’ plays that sometimes result in ‘uh-oh time’, he gets much less grief about it than Spezza does.

      • Great points! No worries about a long post – we’re all about longwindedness here at WTYKY 😉 Ultimately I hope there’s an analysis like this – giveaways v. takeaways – happening on some level in the Sens organization, rather than so much emphasis being placed on just working hard. That’s the essence of a puck possession system. Maybe I’m naive to think it’s not being done.

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