Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Playoff Hockey: The Talent Is Not Enough

Apparently everyone, talent is not enough.

Every time the playoffs come around, the pundits gather round a gaudy table in an overdone studio to explain in certain terms why the better teams lose. Rather than say something insightful or controversial they come up with the same old tripe year after year: talent is not enough.

What I read this morning from an unemployed coach who didn't see much talent beyond 2 or 3 players for a few years now is that, not only is talent not enough, it comes after the other four key ingredients for playoff success:
  1. Intensity
  2. Team work
  3. Character
  4. Discipline
To me, this recipe is omelet without egg. Talent is the primary, not a tertiary, ingredient for a successful hockey team. If a playoff round is an omelet-making competition, a team can mix intensity, team work, character and discipline together all they want, but without talent all they'll get is a pan full of fried garnish and spice .

If you don't believe me, ask yourself why Boston, a team that outplayed Montreal in all of Hartley's critical categories for 2 nights in a row, only won once, and needed to survive a real barrage in OT to do so. Ask why we're talking about how effective their PK is (with 4 guys pretty much standing still), but not about how great their winning goal was. Remind yourself about those years between 1999 and 2001.

When you look at an individual player, it amounts to the same thing: an intense player without talent would not be many peoples' choice when a goal is needed; and character is nice, but how many character 5-goalscorers can you possibly carry on a team. After all, isn't saying someone is a character player akin to saying someone is "a really nice person" after being asked what they look like? The 4 ingredients above only start to matter when you have players with talent – where those players can add little extra qualities to set themselves apart from other players of talent (think Koivu vs. Joe Thornton not Shawn Thornton).

While talent can be temporarily quashed with an overwhelming unbalance in all of the categories Hartley identifies above (see Game 3), ultimately talent will win. But you see, for coaches, talent can sometimes take a lower priority. I have coached people in a few different sports, and though I wish it were different, the one thing you cannot tell someone is: just be more talented.

In some ways, I think this is why talent scares people, and why unemployed coaches on TV will harp on about everything but talent. As a coach you are stuck with what you have. But don't try to tell me that Claude Julien is happier to have Shawn Thornton and Jeremy Reich to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes. Or that Bob Hartley wasn't happier coaching talent in Colorado to muckers in Atlanta. Sure they'll work out plans for what they're given, and they'll talk up the value of character, but they'd have more talent if they could get their hands on it.

So, you see, despite fears of unstoppable momentum and a team that may be big and dirty and bad, Guy Carbonneau and his staff are still in the driver's seat here. The Canadiens roster, if you line it up next to the Bruins by talent, they are superior to a man. All they need to do is find ways to get that talent into play – put the Bruins into situations where talent will decide the winner. Not into situations where one of the other four ingredients will show the victor. It should be less about answering the Bruins and more about making them search for an answer they are incapable of providing.

New Habs strategy

We even spoke about the importance of the Habs setting the tone of this series right at the beginning. Here's the adjustments I think Carbonneau and his crew should be looking to make for Game 4 and to take the Bruins well beyond what they are capable of doing:
  1. Hold the puck more (as a team that is) – even Pierre "Bright New Idea" McGuire has come around to this revolutionary idea. Must be time. This, of course, means no dump ins...
  2. Be patient – goes hand in hand with holding the puck more.
  3. Ignore the bodychecking – Komisarek is big enough to take a hit. Oh sure, hit when necessary to win the puck, but not for the sake of hitting.
  4. Eliminate no-chance shots – that's you Michael Ryder. A shot that never has a chance of going in is a turnover.
  5. Don't squander the Kostitsyns – both have been playing well, both should be put in situations where their talent shines
  6. Choose the best team available – I think Dandenault should watch number 54 from the catwalk.

By holding true to what got them to this stage (that's talent pundits), the Canadiens have the best chance at regaining the momentum in this series. After all, the Canadiens hold the eggs, if the Bruins want to make an omelet out of this series, they'll need to wait for some more to be dropped. Let's fire up the pan for Game 4...

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