So, I was listening to Saku Koivu speak after the Maple Leaf disgrace on Saturday night. He talked about how they're fighting for a playoff place, and how they need to do the little things they're not comfortable doing and how they need to play with passion. Yeah, okay, Saku...we already know those things, and, one would assume, so do the rest of the players. The telling moment of that post-game interview was when someone asked the captain "Simple question: what's wrong with this team?" And Koivu replied, "Simple answer: I don't know." I heard Bob Gainey talk about how the team is fragile and how it crumbles as soon as it's faced with adversity. But when questioned about why that is, it sounds like Gainey doesn't know either.
So, in lieu of the actual reason for the most epic collapse of a potentially good team since last year's Ottawa Senators, we have a whole bunch of theories and dumb excuses. The newest trendy excuse is the number of free agents on the team. The theory goes that with so many unrestricted free agents, there's a lack of stability because no one knows where they'll be next year and no one wants to lay himself on the line for a team that might not want him back. What a bloody crock that is!
The truth is, Bob Gainey's right to wait on signing free agents...especially those who are entering free agency for the first time, or who will be looking for their last contracts. If Gainey had re-signed Alex Kovalev after last year's great season, or extended Mike Komisarek for five-and-a-half or six million per season as he was widely rumoured to be worth, who'd be happy about that now? Kovalev has dropped drastically in both production and general effectiveness since last year. Komisarek has looked bad all year and worse since the injury he sustained in fighting Milan Lucic. He's not hitting, his puck handling is atrocious and he's continually chasing the play instead of taking care of his man. He looks like a rookie even when he's playing with his safety net, Andrei Markov. Komisarek has said several times that he's not injured, that whatever his problem is is mental. Gainey said at the beginning of the year that new contracts would be based on how players performed this season. If the players greeted that statement with fear instead of the desire to prove themselves, it's not management that's got a problem.
I can understand how a player might get it into his head that if the team didn't offer him a new deal it must mean management doesn't value him. And with that mindset, he might start worrying about hurting himself if he pushes his physical limits. And once he starts protecting himself physically, his intensity level and production might begin to drop off. Again, I have to say that theory doesn't hold much water. Players should want to play. They know the only way to get a contract is to prove themselves, whether to the team for which they're playing this year or the team they hope will sign them next year. Either way, free agent years are audition years. Anyone who's hoping self-preservation and a drop in production will land him a good deal either with his current team or a new one has his head screwed on wrong. It might have worked for Michael Ryder last year, but it won't become the norm...especially with the salary cap about to drop. GMs will be looking for players who give it their all, no matter what.
So the UFA theory is pure crap. So is the "media" theory: specifically, that the demands of the media are too taxing and put the team under too much pressure. The media is there to tell the public about the team and the games. Reporters ask questions, then leave to go write their stories and the players leave to go do...whatever it is they do for the twenty hours a day when they're not "working." It's funny how when the team is winning, the media isn't a problem. Everyone's only too glad to talk about themselves when they're doing well. But when it's losing, all of a sudden, players want to hide and they complain about "media pressure." Yeah, okay. Pressure. More like they don't want to answer hard questions, or examine the reasons why they're stinking. When you stink, suddenly hockey in Tampa looks much more appealing, if only because nobody asks you about it after you lose.
Kirk Muller's theory is that the players are trying too hard. He says they've forgotten to have fun, and they're too stressed about losing the minute something goes wrong in a game. Maybe someone should tell the players they have ten games to go, and if they don't pick it up, they don't have to worry about hockey anymore for the next six months. If they love the game and they love what they do, they'll drop the excuses and just play. If they don't...well they'll have a good long summer to think up all the excuses and reasons for this disgrace of a season they can. But if they miss the playoffs I hope they're telling their excuses to their new teams in the fall.