Following two teams as closely as I do breeds several enjoyable exercises in comparisons and contrasts -- on the ice, of course, but also in observing the general panic or drunken elation of the fanbases.
When both teams are slumping, I see familiar similarities in how fans react to their team. When the teams are headed in opposite directions, as the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders are now, I get to amuse myself with how very similar decisions on a day-to-day basis are treated entirely differently depending on the team's recent record.
Ken Hitchcock inherited a good Blues team and made it better. I have no doubt he's a better coach than Jack Capuano -- but then I'm also pretty certain Hitchcock is among the best coaches in the NHL.
So it's funny when Hitchcock says things, be they hockey platitudes ("hard on the puck") or explanations of decisions ("wanted that veteran presence") and flows in the game ("we needed a goal there") which draw vitriol from some Islanders fans when they come out of Capuano's mouth for the hundredth time.
Smart and Hard: In the Eye of Your Current Record
We joke about the "smaht, hahd" refrain from Capuano's lexicon, but it's hardly unique among coaches. Here's just one Hitchcock example:
We competed harder on pucks in the third period, but we did not compete near hard enough on pucks in the first two periods. Up front, we (had) too many turnovers, too many pucks came back on us, they stuck us on the three-quarter ice game. You're not going to win like that.
The same words render differently when you're leading a team that is winless in seven, as opposed to a league powerhouse that has lost twice in a row (regulation) for the first time this season:
"These are ‘lessons to be learned’ losses. I think we started poorly and we were on our heels, and that’s not the way we play. Credit to both (LA and San Jose), they dug in and put us on our heels. In both games we mounted comebacks, but when you’re on your heels, it’s not a good way for our team to play.
Fan: "WHAT LESSONS!? WHY DON'T THEY KNOW? WHAT IS THIS ABOUT HEELS?"
"We take pride in being ready to go. I thought we were tentative at the start in both games and our play reflected it. We tried to play around their checking, rather than through it. I think that’s a lesson learned and I hope that we take advantage of it."
Fan: "WHY WASN'T THIS TEAM READY TO GO?! COACHING FAILURE! THAT'S HIS JOB!"
Hitchcock has an advantage in that he is a more experienced NHL coach with a Stanley Cup ring on his resume, but been fired by three NHL teams because that is the coach's lot in life.
He also has another advantage over Capuano, in the public perception department: He simply likes to talk shop. Hitchcock will use many of the same old-school hockey cliches that Capuano does, but Hitchcock will also happily go on and on about tactics. He's popular with media because he is a content machine with interesting things to say.
What follows is not necessarily an example of that -- I find it interesting, and true, but you might not -- but I do think it's an example of where Hitchcock is a little more verbose and eloquent than Capuano would be describing the same situation:
"We’re not skating for support," Hitchcock said. "I think sometimes we get in a position, when you’re getting forechecked hard, it forces you to stand still. You’ve got to fight to move your feet to support the puck. What we need is cleaner touches. If we can get cleaner touches, we won’t spend as much time in our zone. It’s the first-touch pass that needs to be a heck of a lot better by our whole team in our own zone.
"It’s hard for players to realize this, but when you’re under pressure, it’s all about the team — not about yourself. I think sometimes when you’re getting pressure hard, you make a softer play than you should, and I think that’s where we’ve gotten burned. We’ve tried to finesse a puck rather than crisp and hard with it."
Losing brings very pointed and exaggerated frustration out of fans. In online forums, or increasingly on Twitter, I'll note people ranting about specific moments -- "Why is the fourth line out for a D-zone faceoff?!" and "Why is the fourth line out for a O-zone draw?!" -- that too often can exist in a vacuum.
Capuano uses his fourth line too much, I and many others believe. but that doesn't mean every instance of usage is a mistake. As usual, context is key: Since every coach knows they pretty much cannot afford to roll three lines all season, and they cannot afford to use players so little that they sit for 13 minutes between shifts, and since the other team is deploying lines too, and since special teams and injuries and equipment repair all affect the flow of the game, that means to the superficial eye a line might not be deployed in the EA Sports laboratory way fans prefer.
On the topic of fourth lines: Hitchcock too speaks of trying to avoid using his top lines too much, though some nights line matching and other activity by the opponent prevents that. Other nights he will say it was important to get all four lines into the flow. (Similarly, John Tortorella, who tends to really ride his top lines, will also speak regretfully of "losing" a lower line guy in the rotation when he turns too heavily to his top lines.)
MUST HAVE CAUSE TO SHOUT NOW. (REASON IS OPTIONAL.)
The point is, we can shriek in horror at a line mismatch or simply a line appearance when we'd really prefer our better players out there, but that in itself does not mean any specific instance is the offense that proves the complaint.
So too with line shuffling: Hitchcock has shuffled lines plenty this year, and yet his team is one of the top squads in the league. (This year I've seen criticism of Capuano both for changing lines too reactively, and for not changing them often enough.) Coaches tinker with their lines, period. It's often based on "feel" or who they think isn't showing up to work that night, or sometimes because of how an opponent matches up.
In the end, there are certainly differences in coaches out there, and I am by no means trying to put Capuano in Hitchcock's company. Rather, I'm seeking clarity in complaints, and noting that individual moments do not always relate to overall truths, even if our insta-twitter age invites immediate and repeat judgment.
Last season's first-round series between the Blues and Kings was a hockey cliche-fest in terms of "tough playoff hockey" and all that; it was also a widely praised series of close games in which two Western powers and their good coaches beat the crap out of each other.
That didn't stop a St. Louis columnist from bizarrely tying the Blues' six-game loss to a perceived decades-long culture of accepting failure on the Blues' part -- rather than the far more obvious explanation that a really good team lost a close series to the previous year's Cup champion.
As Stanley Cup champion and "Proven Winner (TM)" Ken Hitchcock discovered in Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus, it's the roster of players they're handed, the whims of the hockey gods and the decisions of their bosses who ultimately determine their public perception and fate.
P.S. Despite the above...play Brock Nelson already! Lather, rinse, repeat.
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