Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More grit needed? . . . or better judgment?

Read Tarik El-Bashir's column this morning in the Washington Post on the Caps trying to add "grit" to the game of Alex Ovechkin. What came to mind by the time I finished it was, "right church, wrong pew."

The argument goes something like this . . . Ovechkin is a gifted offensive player -- a young, gifted offensive player -- who someimes cheats a little too much for his own good trying to get a jump on the offensive attack. No quarrel there. Anyone who has attended a Caps game in person can testify to the "peek" . . . when Ovechkin peeks back to see if a Caps player is about to get possession of the puck, upon which he turns and heads up ice. Trouble is, sometimes, the Cap player doesn't end up with possession, and it's a 5-on-4 in the Caps' zone. Not a good way to endear yourself to your goaltender, as one might interpret from Olaf Kolzig's comments:

"It's not blowing the zone to get a head start on a defenseman . . . It's not about cheating. It's playing the system and playing it right in his own end. He's made strides, but then he takes a step back. He's got to remind himself every game that it's defensive zone first. Because you win championships with defense. And he's the kind of guy who can help us win a championship, but he's got to be committed in his own end."
There is truth in this, but there was something in the comments of George McPhee that made me a bit uncomfortable:

"He's already proven to a lot of people that he's an elite player . . . But he wants to win a Cup. Our objective is to find how he can help us get there. Look at a player like Steve Yzerman. For years, he scored lots of points, but he really needed to learn how to play defense in order to win a championship."
I don't know that this is precisely the problem, or the solution. What Yzerman learned (and Messier and Gretzky -- also cited by McPhee in the article) is judgment. There is a time for flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal attacking, and there is a time to be a rock in your own end. The trick is judgment -- knowing what is needed in each game, on each shift. Yzerman, Messier, and Gretzky learned those skills and, more important, how to apply them in situations that called for them. Ovechkin always will be an "offense-first" player. It does not absolve him from learning and applying the discipline that comes with playing sound defense. But the trick for the Capitals' braintrust is not in just making Ovechkin a better defensive player -- that's half the battle. The trick is to impart to him a sense of what needs to be applied on every shift -- of being the kind of player who knows instinctively and precisely what is needed on that shift and how to apply it.

Yzerman is probably the best example of a player who learned those skills and who developed a sense of judgment to figure out what was required of him on every shift. It's part of what made him the leader he was, especially over the latter half of his career.

Why bother?

I watched that skills competition last night, and the above question came to mind. So much of the format seemed either stale or silly, and the presentation of it was -- well, it's not possible to be charitable here -- awful.

These few seconds . . .

. . . were more fun to watch -- in regular-season competition, mind you (and I'm not a fan of the shootout) -- than just about anything offered up last night.

I'm pretty much an "old school" type, but the two days of all-star celebration is the league's chance to really showcase what it is that makes these guys "all-stars." Creativity, competitiveness, showmanship, style, skill. And we get . . . three guys standing around . . . pass-pass-pass . . . pass-pass . . . pass-pass . . . shoot.


I'd sooner see a "trick shot" competition, with one shooter in on the goalie in a penalty shot format, free to do just about anything with stick and puck to try to score a goal, similar to the NBA slam dunk competition (ok, we don't like to make NBA comparisons here, but humor me). The goal must be scored to count for the shooting team, and scored goals must be judged by an elite panel of from the hockey world (former players would seem best here).

This is but one example. I think one could pluck one hockey fan at random from every NHL city and come up with at least as creative a list of events as what we saw, for the most part, last night.

As for the production, one thing illustrated the problem for me as much as anything else. It was at the top of the Young Stars Game, when our plucky commentators pointed out that there would be a "rail-cam" that would show the speed of the game at close to ice level. Well, we were treated to more shots of the rail-cam Amtraking it along its rail than were were to shots from the rail-cam. It had all the look of a production thrown together in the last 48-hours before the events.

One prays that the game fares better tonight. The league could use the help.