Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sophomore Slump

Most hockey fans were bitter and angry when last year's scheduled NHL opening night came and went without a single faceoff. So, when the lockout ended five months later, it took a while for many people to let those feelings go and get back to filling the rinks and buying team merchandise at an even faster rate than they had before the work stoppage.

Canadiens fans were luckier than most, though. Two kids, neither of whom was really expected to make the team in January, not only made the cut, but also played a big role in turning the Habs' fortunes around. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher lit up the Bell Centre with their youthful enthusiasm and gave fans two really good reasons to put the lockout behind them.

While was great to enjoy the fun provided by a pair of exciting rookies, it does lead to the big question heading into the new season: Will they be able to do it again? The dreaded sophomore slump doesn't happen to every player, but it hits enough of them to give some credence to the perception that it does.

The slump or "jinx" isn't unique to hockey, or even sports. University students commonly drop their performance in their second year, and writers and musicians often come up with sub-par second efforts after an initial blockbuster novel or album. The arts, study and sports are all very different fields, but the reason why the sophomore slump affects all of them is quite possibly the same.

The Harvard Crimson published a piece in February of 1963, explaining why the second year can be tougher than the first. It reads, in part:

"Throughout high school the student was probably under constant pressure to get into a good college; in the freshman year he was preoccupied with surviving at Harvard. But in the sophomore year there is usually no "next step" to serve as a motivation - graduate school, three years away, is still remote. With his two most familiar impetuses removed - error and a concern for the future - the sophomore is frequently struck with an overpowering apathy toward his academic work."

Similarly, a young hockey player with the drive to make the NHL, then stick with a team during his first season, may sometimes find himself without an immediate or concrete goal as he starts his second.

If the Canadiens are to match last year's performance, both Galchenyuk and Gallagher have to continue to progress. With that in mind, it's important to consider the types of players they are, and what drives them. In the case of Galchenyuk, he has the distinction of being a top-three draft pick. If his own desire to bring it every night isn't enough, the superior talent that got him to this point can help him keep developing. With their high level of skill, most players drafted very early do actually progress well.

In the five NHL drafts between 2007 and 2011, 11 of the top 15 players taken have been forwards. Of those, 8 equaled or bettered their rookie performances.  Two of other three, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog, had their second seasons interrupted by the lockout and injuries, and their production did drop slightly. Jonathan Huberdeau didn't make the NHL in his draft year, so can't be compared to the others. Galchenyuk, in terms of skill and potential, deserved to be a top-three pick. If his path follows the majority of his fellow draftees, Habs fans have nothing to worry about this year.

In Gallagher's case, he obviously wasn't drafted as a top talent, but his play at the NHL level did garner him a Calder nomination. Looking at the performance of the rookie-of-the-year finalists over the last five years isn't quite as clear-cut as comparing top draft picks. For one thing, more goalies tend to be Calder nominees than top-three picks, and the development trajectory of goaltenders can be much more volatile than that of forwards. Jimmy Howard, for example, had a stellar rookie year, then a rotten sophomore season. He got his game back on track after that, while Steve Mason has never managed to match the quality of his first season's play. Also, Calder picks can be more fluky, as the nominations are based on only one season's play, as opposed to the more complete body of work that gets a player chosen high in the draft.

Of the Calder-nominated forwards who were not also top-three draft picks in the last five years, only the 2009 ninth pick, Logan Couture and the 2008 fourth choice, Nicklas Backstrom, maintained or improved their rookie numbers. Obviously, then, it can be more difficult for lower draft picks to keep up the pace after they win a spot the NHL.

Numbers and trends don't tell the whole story, though. Brendan Gallagher isn't like most other players. His personal commitment to every shift he plays won't disappear because he's achieved his NHL goal. He may have been an undersized fifth-round pick, but his internal fire works in his favour. Most of the time, he just wants it more than the other guy. If Galchenyuk has superior talent to go along with his work effort, Gallagher has superior desire.  And, as anyone who's ever watched a hockey game can tell you, heart cannot be underrated.

A couple of years ago, author Robert H.Miller published "Campus Confidential," in which he addressed the sophomore slump and asked grad students for advice on how to combat it. This is part of what he wrote:

"The best antidote for the sophomore slump is activity. But not just any activity. We mean goal-centered activity - activity that has you exploring the areas that you have decided are of interest to you and that propel you forward toward a set of longer-terms goals that you've established for yourself. To avoid the sophomore slump, be sure that you have set out your goals for the sophomore year and that you have identified what you hope to explore this year in all areas of your life and have decided on two or three specific, tangible activities that will motivate you in each of those areas."

The trick, in other words, is to give yourself something new and specific to aim for when it feels like you've already met your previous goals. In the cases of both Galchenyuk and Gallagher, it's time for them to start thinking of earning more ice time, improving on last year's personal numbers, proving they can sustain the pace over a full schedule and helping the Habs go deeper into the playoffs. While those are partially team goals, the two sophomores are a big part of the team. Their direction will help determine the direction the Canadiens take this year. And, you have to believe they're on the way up.


Ian said...

It's so nice to have you back writing the best Habs' blog around. It's been a long, boring summer. Go Habs Go....Ian.

Northern_Sooner said...

Nice piece JT. I especially like your well-researched take on sophomore year performance at university.

However, whether or not G & G struggle in their sophomore campaign, it seems the Habs have more important questions about how other players will perform.

In addition to last year's ugliness from DD and Moen, I wonder how Gionta will react to the injuries and another year under his belt, Rene Bourque is always a question mark... and of course everyone will be watching Brière. Really, of the top 6 forwards, only Patches and Plek are entering the season without significant doubts as to how they will perform.

All of which seems to lead to the time-honoured and time-eating tradition of discussing lines ;) I have the trios as follows which would put the most immediate pressure on DD...

Your thoughts?

David Desharnais
Max Pacioretty
Daniel Brière

Tomas Plekanec
Rene Bourque
Brian Gionta

Lars Eller
Alex Galchenyuk
Brendon Gallagher

Ryan White
Brandon Prust
Travis Moen

J.T. said...

@Northern: I don't usually go in for line combos because it's pretty speculative and can change twenty times during a game. However, if I had to pick the guys I'd start, I'd have Plekanec between Pacioretty and Galchenuk. Both Pax and AGally could use a slick centre with speed as well as the ability to play solid D. I'd have Eller as second-line centre, with Gallagher and Briere, then Desharnais with Bourque and Gionta. Fourth line would be any given combo of Moen, White, Prust and Parros.

Northern_Sooner said...

@JT No love for DD? ;)

Seriously... I can see where your combos make sense but I don't believe the Habs signed DD to a long-term deal to play on the 3rd line.

Hockey IQ is the hardest player quality to develop and DD seems to have a more than most. On his best days he's got some of that Gretzkyesque vision and ability to know where the puck is going to be. We know Pax loves playing with him and I really hope they catch lightning in a bottle this year and put up some big numbers.

J.T. said...

@Northern: I like DD a lot, but I think if he's playing with Pacioretty, the Habs have more of a 2A,2B,2C lineup. I'm not thinking of making DD a "third line" player, as much as I'm thinking of icing the best "first line" possible. If Plekanec's the best centreman, and AGally and Pacioretty the best wingers, they should have a shot to find chemistry and see if they can be a legit top line. Then, Eller's and DD's lines would be more of a 2A, 2B setup, with both lining up in scoring roles and neither as a traditional, shut-down "third" line.

Anyway, if Pacioretty loved playing with DD so much, imagine how amazed he'd be with Pleky!