April 07, 2011
The best teams in the NHL have been ramping up for months, aiming to peak at just the right time. That time is now, and playoff seeded squads are buckling down for the best part of the season.
Non-playoff teams, however, are buckling down for a slightly different reason — it's rare in hockey, but for them, it's more about the namebar in back than the logo on the front.
Teams like the Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators should have signs posted around the locker room that read: "Welcome to 2011-2012 NHL Tryouts." Hell, the Oilers have been conducting the world's longest training camp up in Edmonton, but that'll happen when you get knocked out of playoffs by Thanksgiving.
When the games are meaningless, as they are for roughly half the league right now, it takes awhile to realize what your motivation for playing each night is, aside from pride. You could easily go out there and "try," but still figure "you know what, I'm gonna pass on blocking this Shea Weber(notes) slapshot and let the man with the big pads deal with it." It would be really nice to head into summer without a limp, which would greatly cut into your ability to wakeboard.
But if your role is to grind, for some reason that doesn't really reflect all that well on you. You doing the flamingo probably isn't the lasting image you should leave with the men who decide if they want to re-sign you (and for how much).
You realize, usually thanks to it being laid out for you in black and white, that this year just became about next year — whether that means for the remaining couple games for your squad or games 55 through 82, coaches and GMs need to see something out of you before The Bob's come in and do a round of layoffs.
Every coach's speech at that time of year for bad teams could go something like these three simple sentences: "We sucked. Something has to change. Who wants to keep their job?"
Very few teams — save for the Islanders and Oilers, is my guess — will bank on their entire improvement coming from players getting another year older. Most will shuffle the deck.
Guys with long-term contracts don't exactly get to coast either, though admittedly, they have it a little better. But still, the front office has to figure out how to re-adjust their not-quite-good-enough team by honestly assessing the depth chart, figuring out who should play with who, and if need be, who needs to get shipped out of town.
As other leagues see their seasons come to a close — college hockey, junior hockey, European leagues — players get signed and added to the mix, whether it's just to the farm system or right onto the NHL club, and in many cases, you have to prove that you can still be a part of the solution. It would be a lot easier to just board up the locker room doors so nobody else can get in ... but in my experience, coaches frown upon that.
If you're one of the new guys being added, it comes down to proving that these old bums are the problem, and the solution just moved to town. The recent additions inevitably have a leg up, since whatever was happening before was resulting in something closer to failure than success.
If the team decides not to keep you, you still need to battle for a contract somewhere — it's bizarre just how individual-centric the whole thing becomes. If you're being a "good team player" at this time of year it's usually to prove you can be one, not because "good team play" actually matters during this season.
Being in the dressing room for a team like this is an odd experience. It's sad -- your own numbers become more important than the teams, as you begin operating under the "game is a business" premise. It becomes a sort of cutthroat feeling -- you're all still friends in the dressing room, and you still get along, but there's a lingering every-man-for-himself-ness.
The good news, for us hockey fans, is that it seems that everybody still has something to play for. It's how we end up with bad teams playing spoiler, frustrating the crap out of bubble teams desperately in search of a few points.
And it's also how we end up with next year's roster, as the battle for big league positions is already under way.
For fans of those bad teams, there's really awesome news, which has been rare for most of us this season: Our teams haven't missed next year's playoffs … yet.