Sunday, October 5, 2014

Subtraction By Subtraction

When hockey players talk about being part of a "special" team, usually a winning team, their explanations for what makes that team something out of the ordinary are often unsatisfactory. It's like asking a player to explain how they skate or how they know where to place a pass so it hits the tape of a guy in full flight. They can't tell you because their bodies, after years of repetition, do it without thought. It just is. Similarly, when a dressing room clicks and something special...chemistry, bonding, gelling, whatever you want to call it...happens, it's hard to wrap the why of it up in a few clear, well-chosen phrases. It's a thing that either is or isn't, and players know it when it happens.

One thing is certain: it isn't always about talent alone. To step outside the hockey world for an example, look at the Toronto Blue Jays. They went out two years ago and spent a lot of money to bring in a lot of talent that was supposed to bring their team back to relevance. Two disappointing seasons later, defenders talk about injuries and bad luck, but critics point to "chemistry" as the real issue. Chemistry, that rarest of intangibles players use to describe the feelings necessary to a winning team. The word itself doesn't tell you much unless you've witnessed it yourself and recognize it.

It's the respect players have for even the least important of their number. It's the uncomplaining way in which a marginal player does his best when given a chance and pats the other guys on the back when he's relegated to the sidelines. It's the star player who doesn't think himself above the rest and the defenceman who'll block a shot with his face if it gains his team the win. It's the ability of a group to give and take a joke with goodwill, and to share a collective work ethic for a common cause. It's a mix of personalities that balance each other on the whole; the calm guy who keeps panic at bay, the funny guy who lightens the mood, the heart-and-soul guy who raises the level of emotion when it's needed and the bundle of energy who gets everyone to pick up the pace. The game may be played on the ice, but the will to do it comes from the relationships in the room. It's just as delicate and real as any concoction in a laboratory beaker.

In the analysis of the individuals who make up a team, a goalie who plays fewer than 20 games a year most of the time and a shot-blocking defenceman who scores two goals a season don't add up to much. The former rarely makes a difference to the outcome of a game, let alone a season. The latter will sacrifice himself to block a shot, but isn't physically imposing enough to render his lack of production unimportant. Yet, there's a greater value to those players than their talent or on-ice performance. When that goalie is patient and hard-working and never puts himself before the team, he's more than just a backup player. He's the friend and helper of your number-one, who's got a tough enough job to do without worrying about a whiny or self-interested partner. When that defenceman comes to the room every night burning with an infectious passion to play the game and win, he's more than just a shot blocker. He's a leader and a rallying point for those who need to feed off his emotion.

Similarly, an aging winger who's losing a step of the speed on which his game is based and who's physically one of the smallest players in the league looks like no big loss when he's let walk at the end of his contract. Yet, in his role as captain, his quiet dedication and calm leadership keeps drama to a minimum and helps his teammates concentrate on the job at hand.

The Canadiens have set themselves an interesting task in the coming season. Marc Bergevin has made some roster moves designed to address on-ice imbalances and, from a business perspective, save money and manage the assets that are his players effectively. Moving Josh Gorges and replacing him with Tom Gilbert means the defence has a better right/left mix than it did last year. Trading Peter Budaj means the team saves a bit on the salary cap, solves a tricky three-goalie situation and avoids having to waive a goalie who'd likely be claimed. Letting Brian Gionta go and replacing him with Jiri Sekac saves money and makes the team bigger and younger on the wing. On paper, these moves make sense. In the big picture though, three players who were friends and emotional touchstones for the team are gone. That's tinkering with chemistry.

Perhaps the new four-man leadership group of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty and P.K.Subban, with their nice mix of youth and experience, will settle into new roles and bring the elements necessary to a winning team that left with Gorges, Budaj and Gionta. Or maybe the pressure for Subban to live up to his massive new contract will affect his play and shift the balance in the room. Maybe Pacioretty, always sensitive to the ups and downs in his game, will let criticism impact the way he leads. Perhaps the loss of two of Carey Price's closest friends will upset his legendary calm. And the questions aren't just surrounding those guys. Bergevin and Michel Therrien have talked about how younger players will now be required to take on new roles in the life of the team. That's risky when some of these players are themselves still discovering who they are and where they fit.

In David MacFarlane's book, "The Danger Tree," the author writes about his mother's relatives during the First World War. There were six brothers in the family, and they ran a successful construction business. When war broke out, all six boys joined up and three of them died overseas. After the war, the surviving brothers returned to their business, but they found with the thoughtful brother gone, the impulsive one had no steadying influence and made critical bad decisions. The charming brother had died and the sullen one couldn't maintain the connections the company needed to thrive. In the end, the business went under. The vital balance of skill and personality...the chemistry, if you will...was destroyed and those remaining couldn't recreate it.

We don't know yet how the changes in the Habs room will impact their performance on the ice. Looking at the roster, it seems as though the team, if the players remain relatively healthy, should have no reason to win markedly fewer games than last year. A season ago, Canadiens players talked about how the group in the room was "tight" and "close." They're the same cliches most guys offer when things are going well. The revelation for this year's edition will be when the rough patches come and the Habs take their chemistry test.


Unknown said...

"On paper, these moves make sense. In the big picture though, three players who were friends and emotional touchstones for the team are gone. That's tinkering with chemistry."

oh c' don't want to split them up because they're friends? Hockey is their JOB, this isn't a beer league. Will they miss their teammates? Of course, but their big boys, who make big bucks and live in big houses. They will survive.

Ian said...

Welcome back, Leigh Anne. Always look forward to your take.

I am cautiously optimistic (but excited) about the season ahead. I believe (hope) that there is a lot of leadership left on the team. Time will tell, but your points are well made. A close, tight team goes farther than one that isn't.

I am so interested in who makes the final roster. Does Frankie Boo make it? Love him to pieces, but I sure hope not. Some of the young guys need their chance now.

Not sure where Bournival and Moen fit any more. I still love Bournival and his speed. Unfortunately, Travis seems to be on a decline and looks like the odd man out unless they can move him.

I hope they win the opener on Wednesday against the Laffs. If they only can win five games all year, I hope it is the five against the Laffs. Then add Boston next to the total. :))

I look forward to another year of your insightful posts...Ian Z.

moeman said...

Great to see you back J.T.

J.T. said...

@Tanya Rock: Hockey's their job, for sure. It's also the Oilers job, and look how well that's worked out for them. You need a mix of skills and personalities to make a team work. That doesn't mean status quo, or that change can't be a good thing. Of course, any team that didn't win the Cup last year needs to get better. I agree with that. I just believe it needs to be done with intangibles in mind.

@Ian: Thanks! We know the answer on Bouillon now (and it was the right choice), but we'll see where Moen ends up. Based on his lack of playing time in last season's playoffs, his time in Montreal may be petering out. I think Bournival could be an asset still. We'll see, soon enough.

@moeman: Thanks a lot!

Unknown said...

But you can't have it all. And if one had to go, would you let the skilled player leave over the one who gels the team? I wouldn't. So many the personality fits in but it's definitely not what makes or breaks the team.

Saying goodbye to Gionta was necessary, agreed? Saying goodbye to Gorges not as much but after watching the playoff games in which he got crushed, it made it a little easier to let him go.

Budaj, would you have kept him over Toker?