The value of players buying in, and when skating becomes a challenge

Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie joins Tim and Sid to discuss the NHL's return to play scenarios and what the playoffs might look like.

Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…

Appetizer: The value of buy-in

Last week when Mark Recchi joined us on Hockey Central to discuss his life and career I asked him a question about the different ways teams can win. I was getting at the idea that you can be offensive, or defensive, or tough, or rely on goaltending or coaching, and that there isn’t just one way to get it done. His answer, though, was about the thing that tied together each of the three teams with which he won Stanley Cups: buy-in.

He talked about how, regardless of who is on the team or how the team plays, it’s crucial to have the commitment of every player pulling the same direction, all-in.

Hockey Central
Mark Recchi on a long, varied illustrious career in the NHL
May 14 2020

It’s in light of that that this recent quote from Tyson Barrie caught my eye. Barrie is a UFA this summer, was not dealt by the Leafs at the deadline, and it’s clear he won’t be coming back. I’m highlighting this not to blame Barrie, who’s simply aware of his situation. It’s not to blame the Leafs, who deemed themselves better off with him for a run this year than without him. It’s just to note that buy-in is a valued commodity, and not everyone and every team is able to get it.

This was Barrie, answering a question from Chris Johnston about his priorities in free agency:

“It’s got to be the right fit. I think it has to be a spot where they are in need of someone like myself. A good team headed in the right direction and a good organization. I think there’s a lot of right organizations that tick those boxes.”

Teams can have success with rental players, and teams can have success with their own players on expiring deals. There are precedents. But the contrast between Recchi’s words and those from Barrie strike me as stark. Tough to be all-in when you’re already half-out.

Main Course: Hockey players losing what’s usually automatic will be evident

It’s only natural that when you love something, you want to defend it. That goes for friends and family, certainly, but it extends beyond that too. When hockey fans come up against fans from other sports who question our semi-niche game played in colder climates on sheets of ice, there are a few age-old points of pride we lean on. One is that our players have historically been as tough as you find in any sport, and two is that have you tried playing hockey? It’s hard! The implied contention, I think, is that of the major four sports hockey is the most difficult athletically.

I’ve heard greats of the game explain it in simplistic terms, that players are flying around at high speeds, there’s risk at all times, you’re manipulating a frozen piece of rubber with a stick … and on and on with the challenges of the game, followed by some version of the inevitable capper “And they’re doing it all while balancing on knives on ice.”

The knives on ice thing, that’s always the kicker, isn’t it?

This is going to take the wind out of the sails of a lot of arguments from people I really like, but: it’s not really like that. It’s a fallacious argument. That makes it sound like players are doing what they do while on stilts and juggling plates.

To a professional hockey player, skating is automatic. It’s mechanized, it’s subconscious, it’s forgotten. It’s barely any more of an addition to the task of playing hockey than running is to playing football. (I’d actually be interested to see a pro’s brain studied while playing hockey to know if scientifically there’s even an increased workload from skating to running for a pro hockey player. It might actually be easier.)

Growing up in a hockey family, I wasn’t exactly on skates from birth, but it wasn’t too far off. Maybe I skated at three or four, I started organized hockey around six or seven.

By the time I was in college, I was on the ice six days a week for at least a couple hours a day, often well more. The only time I ever thought about my feet on the ice was if they hurt, same as it would be for a runner. If the direction of the play changed on a dime, there’s no additional processing for a skater than there would be for a runner on a field or court. You just change direction.

I bring this up today, because were I to go on the ice right now to mirror another player who was changing directions quickly, there’d be some toe picks. I might have a Bambi moment. I’d feel my skates under feet – they’re a little crusty and will need to be re-worked in – I’d be cognizant of the sharpness of the edges (if there was any at all), and overall, I’d have to think about skating.

Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac
Fear of Carey Price helped block a best-of-three playoff format
May 22 2020

That unusual discomfort is not just something that’s built up after years of being off the ice, unfortunately. It happens pretty quick for players (to a smaller degree of course), which means it pertains to professionals across the board, professionals who’ve been off the ice now for months and are likely to return to the ice soon to try to get their skating back to automatic.

Skating is not like riding a bike. To get to autopilot, it takes consistent reps.

I spent my summers in Kelowna, BC, which is home to one of the best pro summer skates anywhere in North America. Each summer I got on the ice early, I’m talking June, in hopes of gaining an advantage over other players. The best players didn’t usually come back until August. From August 1 to August 15 I could convince myself that I could play in the NHL. By August 16 the evidence against that notion usually started to pile up.

The things that make the elite special, the puck skills, the baby sauce passes that land flat, the back-hand five hole dekes executed with a shrug … those things look pretty janky until the kinks get worked out.

I’ve made the argument that players could do with a two-week training camp and play suitable NHL games through all this, and I stand by that. The reason being though, is that my standards of suitable are truly just good enough, because it’s a weird year, and standards have changed.

As I think about players getting back into the rinks in the coming month, I think about how awkward they’re going to feel. How what’s usually automatic won’t be, and how what’s usually smooth is going to have wrinkles. If we do in fact get NHL hockey this year, it’s going to be ugly for a while. For the first time, the challenges of “Doing it all with knives under their feet on slippery ice” will be a truly relevant note.

Dessert: When should the NHL season run?

Something I’ve done for years now is go through Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts” column, grab a few notes that stand out to me, and weigh in on them. “Thoughts on Thoughts” was a staple of my time at TheScore, and I’ve always been grateful for Elliotte’s permission in cribbing, oh, a thousand of his well-researched words on which to hang my own harebrained thoughts.

This week there was just one thing that made me talk out loud at my computer upon reading (please check out the whole article here, it’s excellent as always):

24. This is a long way down the line, but if the 2020-21 season does go from December/January to July — I wonder how many teams are going to ask their fans if they want that schedule to be permanent.

My understanding is that there are some in the US who believe going up against football (NFL, NCAA, and high school) hurts the game.

I’ve long been a proponent of shifting the NHL schedule … to start in September, and wrap-up in May. That’s the true hockey season, that takes us from the start of “normal” years (September, with school and sports and the return of routines) through the cold months, wrapping up before everyone would rather be on the golf course than in the rink.

I’m a firm believer in “do what you do and do it well,” and that the NHL would be wise to focus on what works best for the fans rather than contorting themselves into something unnatural for the game.

So, while Brian Burke campaigns to keep the Stanley Cup Playoffs from permanently expanding after this weird year, count this as my push to keep the NHL’s (potentially) adjusted 2020-21 schedule from sticking.

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