Thursday, April 11, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Exploding the Myth of Talent
The next Stars fan who blurts "Sink for Seth!" is going to get a skate to the knee.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we rated the trades, giving GM Joe high marks despite the perplexing return for Jagr. This week, considering what has happened with the young Stars team since they "packed it in," it's time to set a few things right.
The mood in StarsLand following the trades of Morrow, Roy and Jagr was not a healthy and positive one. For the first time in franchise history, we were "sellers," i.e., "no-account losers," the couch-crashing second cousins of the NHL. Stars management had "given up" on this season, selling off all our talent for unproven prospects and picks.
Of course, that panicked narrative ignores some simple facts. First, the guys we got rid of were all on expiring contracts. Two, the guys we got rid of were not the "talent" on the team --that would be pretty insulting to Benn, Eriksson, Goligoski, Lehtonen, etc if anyone truly thought that. And third, and most importantly, the guys we got rid of were simply not producing anything in the "W" column in the standings.
As soon as the news of Jagr in a Bruins uniform hit, Stars fans actively starting shouting for the team to tank for a lottery pick. You know, because a team of 20+ professionals would totally do that to get one 18 year old on their farm team. But even if you could get the players, coaches, GM and owner all on the same page of "let's lose all our remaining games on purpose so we can have a microscopically better chance at gambling with our franchise's future!" --in essence, shooting for the moon and trying to win big by losing everything-- it's a foolish "plan" at best, and frankly, never works.
But what about Pittsburgh? What about Chicago? Those guys sucked for years and got amazing players and are now unstoppable!! That's the model we need to follow!
Excellent points, Straw Fan, but you're forgetting some key facts here. The Penguins --they of Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kunitz et al-- have won all of one playoff round since 2009... and that was against the Senators. In 2010.
Chicago? Zero playoff series victories since 2010. And that's with a healthy Toews, Kane, Sharp, Keith and Seabrook.
Yes, both are also "recent" Cup winners. But was it talent that got them there? If so, did the talent just "dry up" these last few seasons? Does the ability to skate fast and make good passes take a few years off?
Anyone who saw the Penguins play the single most embarrassing series of playoff hockey in recent memory could see that the talent was still there. All those guys named above, plus Neal and Staal, seemed to be able to score almost at will on the hapless Flyers. Of course, they weren't even trying to defend, so there's that. What, you expect talent to throw a check or block a shot? Pshaw. That's squaw work.
All this leads to some prevalent myths about talent and its role in winning hockey games. But fret not! We're here to drop some mad truf in your dumb, dumb brainholes. You can thank us later. We even accept Discover. We're not picky.
Myth #1: Talent wins games
The Harsh and Bitter Reality: No, it doesn't - Yes, you need players who know how to skate, pass and shoot if you expect to win. But just ask the 2013 Lakers or the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles or the 2012 Penguins or the 2013 New York Rangers what, exactly, a collection of world-class talent will get you. Right now, there is no more talented team in the NHL than the Edmonton Oilers, if you define talent as "almost supernatural ability to play hockey." And yet, here we are once again, with the Oilers likely missing the playoffs, although not finishing dead last in the NHL is a step in the right direction.
Yes, the single most talented team in the NHL routinely finishes in last place. Or try this: who would you bet your life savings on in a game between this year's Boston Bruins and a team comprised entirely of NHL All-Stars? We're talking the 22 best non-Bruins in the entire NHL, against a team that still gives Shawn Thornton and Rich Peverly significant ice time. Who would you bet real money on to win that game? Best of five?
If you honestly think the All-Stars would win, well, I've got a friend who's a prince in Nigeria who wants to talk to you about a can't-miss financial prospect. For those of you who correctly picked "Bruins in a blowout," congratulations! You understand the one fundamental rule of all team sports: teams win games, not players.
Myth #2: Talent wins championships
The Harsh and Bitter Reality: No, it doesn't - If you were going to draw up a ranking of the 16 NHL teams who made the playoffs in terms of talent, where would you have slotted the Kings? First? Second? Remember: they were 40-42 and just barely squeaked into the 8th spot. Certainly they were more talented than the Panthers, maybe more than the Coyotes... but that's about it. Same with the Devils. Did anyone pick them to beat out the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers when the playoffs started, based on their level of talent? How about halfway through?
The truth about champions is that talent plays a surprisingly small role in actually winning. What's far, far, far more important is work, sacrifice and leadership. A team of 22 guys all on the same page, willing to sacrifice their individual stats for wins and get physically hurt in the corners can beat a team of 22 supremely talented individuals who refuse to do those things. Sports is no different from your "real" life: slapping a bunch of talented people on a team and just expecting them to achieve their goals never works if there is no clear and effective leadership, whether it's the accounting department's birthday committee or a UN peacekeeping force in a war-torn central African country. Without people willingly sacrificing personal glory to take on demeaning and/or thankless roles, nothing of any importance can ever be accomplished. Hockey is not immune to this: the Kings had waves of players willing to dole out and receive physical punishment so that other guys on the team could, even if just for a split second, have a small amount of open ice from which to work their shooting/passing/shotstopping magic.
One of the single greatest players in NHL history is Nick Lidstrom, with four Cups to his name and Odin knows how many division titles. Yet there were an astounding 18 defensemen selected before him in the 1989 draft. Of those 18, just one --Adam Foote-- was not a complete draft bust. So what did Lidstrom have that those other 17 didn't? Breakaway speed? A booming slapshot? Hulking size?
No, Lidstrom had a work ethic second to none. He had terrific on-ice instincts, sure, but he won puck battles, marshaled the defense into a solid unit and went out there and simply won. Which brings us to...
Myth #3: Leadership is telling people what to do
The Harsh and Bitter Reality: No, it isn't - While douchebags in Tapout shirts getting into slapfights in dance clubs might disagree, the old bumper sticker slogan of "Lead, Follow, or Get the Hell Out of the Way" is the single dumbest thing ever said about leadership. Hockey players are no different than you and your co-workers: some of them are motivated by the Stanley Cup, but most are not. Almost all of them will say that's their ultimate goal, but that's also just part of their job, just like not criticizing the other team's fat ugly faces or complaining about their incompetent coach in the press is also part of their jobs. The sordid truth is, without a leadership group on the team working closely with the coaching staff to get every single player on the same page, your team isn't going anywhere. Period.
To make matters worse, because rosters have such huge turnover even on a week-to-week basis thanks to injuries and call-ups, what worked perfectly for the leaders on the team one week might explode in their faces the next. This is why Jonathan Toews, who by all accounts is a great team leader, can captain a 2010 Blackhawks team that cruises to a Stanley Cup while also captaining a 2011 Blackhawks team that backs its way into the playoffs before politely bowing out to a very beatable Canucks team. Did Toews "lose" his ability to lead? Probably not, considering where the Blackhawks are this season... but circumstances change quickly, and a 22 year-old captain might not have been up to the task, regardless of his personal charisma or natural leadership ability.
Above all, a leader needs followers. Brenden Morrow is the perfect example of this: there have been too many games to mention in the past half-dozen years where the Stars, as a team, completely gave up on a game. Just flat out refused to give a rat's arse. Those were also inevitably the games in which two players --Morrow and Steve Ott-- started throwing their bodies around, pounding enemy forwards into the boards, single-handedly trying to skate the puck up ice, anything to get their team going again. Did it ever work? No, no it did not ever work. That's because the two lacked followers. They may have been the 'C' and the 'A', but they had just as much influence on the team as the drunk guy two rows above you shouting ethnic slurs at Slovakian players. Does this mean they lacked respect? Not necessarily... they just lacked followers. Hence, their leadership was largely ineffective. Even Lidstrom's Red Wings got swept in the first round from time to time. Leadership is a truly fleeting thing, and what works one year might not the next. Of course, what never works one year generally doesn't ever work in other years, either.
Which bring us to the current world-beating Stars. What the new-look Stars have done since the trade in real terms is this: they moved Cody Eakin into Roy's spot centering the second line, moved Erik Cole down to the Grumpy Old Men checking line and put Chiasson in Jagr's spot alongside Jamie Benn. In other words, dumped a pair of cherrypicking forwards, called up two AHLers and slightly reshuffled the lineup. The results have been the best hockey the Stars have played in years: rather than a turnover-prone perimeter team of independent contractors playing mediocre hockey, the Stars have been a lightning-fast heavy forechecking unit of five who wear down the opposition by pushing the puck up ice. Whether they can maintain this is obviously unknown; whether Benn, Eriksson and Daley have finally asserted themselves as leaders is unknown; whether the departure of Roy and Jagr allowed the coaching staff to finally get their voices heard is also unknown. We're not privy to any of that. What we are privy to is the on-ice result. And that's been three straight convincing wins against the three top teams in the Pacific Division, all playoff-bound, all heavily favored.
So what's the difference? Is this Ray Whitney's team? Benn's? Daley's? Did Chiasson give a rah-rah speech to the boys and get them all fired up? Who knows? What we do know is that the Stars are finally playing together as a tight-knit group, each with roles they seem to have accepted, with fires lit under their collective a**es. It may not last long enough for them to squeak into a playoff spot, but it's immensely enjoyable to watch, and bodes well for next season.