Mark Streit, Blake Comeau and the Elusive Role of Confidence in NHLers

UNIONDALE, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Mark Streit #2 and John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders celebrate defeating the New Jersey Devils 6-1 in a preseason game at Nassau Coliseum on September 24, 2011 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images for New York Islanders)

"Every year, I was able to play a little better and with more confidence," he said. "At the end of the day, a lot of things stick or fall with confidence."

>>Mark Streit, in the Montreal Gazette last season [apologies, article no longer online]

There isn't anything typical about Mark Streit's career and his path to the NHL, so we shouldn't try to glean too many overarching lessons here. But there is something typical, truthful, and unquantifiable in the words he used to describe his ascent from ninth-round afterthought to convenient Montreal swingman to anchor of an NHL blueline.

When we try to soberly evaluate players, to strip away our unshakeable biases and let cold, objective numbers do the talking, we still can't account for psychological and developmental unknowns that some disregard outright and others merely find annoyingly elusive. That doesn't mean they don't exist. It doesn't mean they don't help influence fluctuations in performance.

For the most part, the on-going advances in stats and "micro" or "advanced" stats in hockey are a great help in telling us what has happened -- eve in sorting out (thanks to percentages) which fluctuations are probably influenced by unusually poor or good luck. Matched with age and peer history, they're also a great help in telling us the range of likely future outcomes for a given player.

But like a player hiding an injury or going through a divorce, loss of a loved one, caring for a sick family member, or a case of depression that can affect anyone, there are mental variables that affect performance and, just like the numbers a player puts up, we generally don't know about those unseen variables until after the fact.

When Mark Streit bounced around the AHL, IHL and ECHL at age 22, nobody would've imagined him being a number one defenseman on an NHL team. (To be clear: Travis Hamonic's emergence has bumped Streit down to #2 in importance for the Isles.) When he was a ninth-round draft pick at age 26, no amount of number crunching would've predicted Streit would ever become an unrestricted free agent in high demand.

"I was positively surprised ... It was like a dream come true for me, to be drafted and sign an NHL contract."

-quote from the same article in the opener

Even when he was a productive swingman for the Canadiens at age 29 and 30, very few looked at his numbers and concluded it was only lack of opportunity keeping him from becoming a good enough and important enough full-time defenseman that his preseason injury would essentially sink a team's season before it began.

Yet in the summer of 2008, while the Isles bid $4.1 million per year on Streit, the Blackhawks threw eight years and a $7.14 cap hit at Brian Campbell, the Blue Jackets sent five years and $18.75 million Mike Commodore's way, the Rangers committed six years and $39 million to Wade Redden, and the Leafs tossed four years and $14 million at Jeff Finger. You know how those worked out: Only one of this group saw his contract through with the NHL club that signed him.

Mark Streit sure showed all of the doubters, but he also apparently showed himself.

In general hockey terms, you're not supposed to keep getting better in your late 20s. You're supposed to learn little things that make the tools you've already established all the more useful, but you're not supposed to move from powerplay specialist to two-way blueline cog.

I've no doubt Streit's innate talent was always there, and his nearly foreign (in NHL circles) background kept that talent from being discovered sooner, but there was also another factor doubtlessly in play.

"At the end of the day, a lot of things stick or fall with confidence."

Something I've noticed is true in hockey from the smallest to the biggest stage is that -- except for those rare players whose motor is "always on" -- players will try whatever they can get away with until they reach a level of competition where their pet moves, sprints and shortcuts don't work anymore. From men's league to good high school to NCAA to different levels of junior, the ECHL, AHL and then NHL ... in hockey there appear to be 100 incremental equivalents to baseball's dead-red fastball slugger who can't handle major-league breaking balls, or the handsy middle infielder whose pivot isn't smooth enough for major-league double plays.

Hockey at all levels is filled with cases where someone thinks a standout at their level is a sure thing to make the next one. But the reality is most of them hit a wall, and the degrees that separate breaking through that wall from hitting it are painfully, cruelly thin. (I've no doubt about Bourne's belief in Trevor Smith's talents in that previous link; the language just demonstrates how thin these increments are.)

When an aspiring NHLer reaches that level where his bag of tricks no longer works, he either adapts and becomes the grinding defensive/banging forward, stay-at-home depth defenseman or one-trick fighter, or else he quits and/or stops moving up. Career AHLer ain't so bad. (Nor is getting paid to play hockey and live your 20s in Europe, incidentally.) If he does the former, he discovers he can't play a complicated game at the top level, so he adjusts to the old reliable KISS method.

But what about players who pre-emptively, tentatively, hold themselves back because they know they aren't supposed to be able to deploy their bag of tricks at the highest level? They're supposed to be hitting that wall? We associate this more with young players who slowly come out of their shell after initially being intimidated in their first camps, but the landscape has room for Streit-like examples, too.

"Looking back, I’ve come a long way. If somebody had told me my first year in Montreal that one day I’d be captain of an NHL team, I’d have told the guy he was crazy."

Confidence

Anyone who watched Blake Comeau for the entirety of his time in the Islanders organization could reasonably conclude that his on-ice mix of moments of brilliance with moments of facepalming is not the reflection of a player who only "shows up" on certain nights, but rather that of an inconsistent young forward going through growing pains. Awkward stages where he's still figuring out what he can do at this level -- and still assembling the confidence that those things are worth the try.

For Islanders fans who grew frustrated watching Comeau, it wasn't for a lack of effort or work. Decision-making, possibly concentration and possibly hockey I.Q., but not effort. And quite possibly confidence. (Note that despite a humiliating year and a 50% pay cut from the Flames, the confidence appears back: GM Jay Feaster openly expects something less from Comeau, but Comeau thinks he really is a 24-goal scorer. Comeau has been and can be a contributing NHLer, but I will bet my dog that it's more in the identity Feaster sees in him than the role Comeau sees for himself.)

Now ultimately, players are who they are. A magical confidence injection will not turn 15-goal talent into 30-goal talent. But it can help confirm for a player that what he thought was there is really there, is really achievable given opportunity and health. It can help a player try anew things he didn't think he could get away with -- things maybe he shouldn't get away with -- but now his opponents treat him with more respect and fear than they do the adapted grinder who can occasionally do the same things.

(Granted, obviously for most players, when they're playing with Sidney Crosby there numbers will show a bump, and return quickly to earth right afterward. That's not confidence, that's a superstar linemate)

So it's interesting when a player brings up confidence and his trajectory reflects it. It's not in the numbers and we can only speculate about it as its happening -- and usually it's going to be a talented youngster as he adjusts to the next level -- but at the end of the day, some things really do stick or fall with confidence.

"I had to move on to establish myself as full-time defenceman and Garth Snow gave me that opportunity by believing in me."

Streit isn't a true #1 guy on most teams -- he's not a two-way dynamo (though he was the first year of his deal). But he provides key offense and can definitely handle a second pairing role defensively. And he and the NHL probably would've never found that out without the opportunity and confidence that came with it.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum is the guy filled with confidence whose abilities don't quite measure up. That's a story for another day.

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