WAIT WAIT WAIT: before you click away, this isn’t an article in which I try to quantify compete level.
I think that trying to quantify “effort” in pro sports is a game of diminishing returns—if you’re looking to consistently gain advantage over another group of pro athletes, “trying harder” or raising your “compete level” probably isn’t the way to do it. Some teams or players have lazy moments, but I would wager those are extremely insignificant outliers on an overall level of competition that, to us mere mortals, is unfathomable. Everybody tries hard.
I suspect that when I hear “effort,” like when I hear “focus” or “leadership” or “grit,” what I’m actually hearing is an easy substitution for any number of more nuanced and complex reasons for why a team might stink. Effort is always unquantifiable, so, there can always be more of it. What’s worrisome is that you hear these platitudes the most from Paul MacLean.
Now, MacLean isn’t exactly going to get up in front of the media and outline the Xs and Os of his playbook for all the world to see. What else is he going to say other than, “We need to get ready for the next game, prepare properly, and raise our compete level”? But I’m telling you—if this is what the players are getting in the dressing room, I don’t know how mad we can be about the Sens’ current record. After almost half a season of hearing about compete level, it’s starting to sound obnoxiously disconnected from the real world.
Saddled with one of the lowest payrolls in the league, the team is still top 10 in offense—and that’s with Michalek, Conacher and Greening all disappearing from view. The goalies are facing more shots than normal; if you told Lehner he didn’t compete he’d bite you on the face. Even the much maligned defense has a guy like Karlsson, who plays 30 minutes a game and last night skated end-to-end and back on a single shift about six times that I counted.
I’ve already written about how if the team’s PK picks up even a little bit, or if they take fewer penalties, they’ll be in a good spot. Their possession stats are trending in the right direction. So how can you look at all of this and conclude that they should just “try harder”?
Defensive coverage and a stinky PK seem to be the problem, and really, they’ve been a problem all season. Are special teams not assistant coach Dave Cameron’s area? Oh, and did you see Cameron screaming at Spezza from the bench last night after another blown play? Something isn’t right in his shop.
We don’t have access to the dressing room, or to the coach’s thoughts or strategies, but there’s a worrisome disconnect between the stats and the grizzled-leader stuff MacLean gives us whenever he’s asked for an explanation for his team’s poor play.
Stuff like this:
“We’re an inconsistent group. We can’t get the puck out of our zone. We play good against good teams. We play bad against teams below us. That’s just a lack of focus, a lack of leadership and that’s a lack of us wanting to play in the National Hockey League and be an elite team. We are a long, long way from being an elite team.”
So, when asked for a reason why the team is good against good teams and bad against bad teams, MacLean offers that we’re bad because we’re bad, and if we wanted to not be bad, we would be good. The reason we don’t want to be good? We don’t actually want to play in the NHL.
This stuff is maddening to hear night-in and night-out. And as frustrating as it is for us, you’ve got to really feel for the team if those are their marching orders.