When the 2014-15 season was still young, the New York Islanders got off to a nice 3-0 start capped by a raucous comeback win over their rivals at Madison Square Garden.
However, coach Jack Capuano was not pleased with their play to that point, noting that the offense had been power play-reliant (several months of great 5-on-5 later, doesn't that sound impossible?) and various players weren't performing according to assignment. He had already noticed a positive, non-scoresheet kind of trend though, one he thought would help get all of his charges on the same page.
Here is what Capuano said after that 6-3 win over the Rangers, beginning with an answer about Ryan Strome -- one that made some anxious fans fear Strome would be a whipping boy shipped back to Bridgeport or something -- and continuing on toward the theme of internal "accountability" that he has cited multiple times since.:
"[Strome]'s a skilled guy, he's a young guy, it's about knowing who you're out there against, it's about habits, attention to detail, puck management. What I like about our team, some of the veteran guys let him know.
"We have a more mature [group]. What I like about the team, I said this in training camp: It's about accountability, and it starts with them. The great teams have that in the locker room. It starts with them. It starts with the individual, then it's their teammates, then it's the coaching staff. So I like the fact that when we're not playing how we need to play, guys are stepping up. It's tough to give your teammate a little kick in the butt there, and I'm seeing more and more of that.
The proverbial "kick in the butt," which usually carries so much more credibility when coming from a veteran teammate than a coach.
Islanders fans sometimes scoff when Capuano mentions "accountability" because they think one player or another should be scratched because they're not as good, or made a gamelong Corsi fail rather than a glaring one, etc. While those are legit points, I think that's a different connotation for this word than the coach intends.
More often than not, when Capuano says "accountable," I think he's referring to the players holding each other to a higher standard.
People see the poor periods, the letdowns, the letting up after building leads, and often assume the coach has pulled the puppet strings and told them to soften up or go into a shell -- to play worse, in effect. Pretty sure that's not what the coach is doing, though, particularly when he follows up such a late-game dropoff by saying, "we didn't stick to our game."
Also pretty sure players are humans who go through ups and downs, while the physical demand of playing "our game" for 60 minutes at the NHL level is an impossible standard -- there is always an opponent trying to prevent it, usually a minimum of 45 percent successful in doing so -- and getting anywhere near that ideal standard requires constant pushing from inside and out.
You see Ryan Garbutt repeatedly take dumb penalties in Dallas, drawing Lindy Ruff's ire, and you wonder if it won't click for him coming from a coach who's "tried everything" yet still saw Garbutt take a dumb and costly elbowing penalty while Dallas still had playoff hopes. The Stars have a younger leadership group. You wonder if any of them are trying to hold Garbutt accountable?
Ferraro: Young Players Say They Need It
Someone has to lead by example. You need some veterans to do that, even as you go through this transitional stage. I know because I hear from young players and they talk of older players that they see and can’t believe now hard these guys work. If there’s nobody leading the way — you can have a coach tell you all day, but if you see a peer doing something and you go, "huh, that’s something I should probably be doing." I think Polak can be one of those guys.
Granted, Ferraro is more referring to the world of preparation rather than in-game adherence to detail and full effort. But the same extra effort required to fully prepare like a professional is what's required to resist the temptation of shortcuts during an energy-sapping game.
Ironically the guy Ferraro was talking about, Roman Polak, has seen his skills decline enough that you probably wouldn't keep him around even on a third pairing just for "leadership." And of course, Ferraro has no solid way of knowing that Polak is -- or should remain on the roster to be -- that guy.
But the underlying point stands: NHL players arrive as teenagers, or guys in their early 20s. Most got there getting away with mistakes they can no longer make at this level. Most got there due more to natural talent that shines above their regional peers, less from the relentless drive that eventually keeps them in that upper percentile-of-a-percent that contains the world's best players.
While there is no denying the physical skills are often best early in a player's career, the emotional maturity can come much later.
The 'Mature Group'
Professional hockey is now a 24/7, 12-month gig that requires nonstop maintenance of the body. Even summer vacations and rests are chosen with careful discretion. When you're a young player arriving on the scene thanks to your talent, that extra burden is not always clear. Sometimes it takes the examples of guys who have "been there" and, as it turns out, survived long enough to tell about it.
Meanwhile, dealing with emotional highs and lows is a major part of the job as well. Longtime Islanders players, including captain John Tavares, have repeatedly noted how Johnny Boychuk and Jaroslav Halak handle losses without dwelling on them.
Boychuk and Nick Leddy arrived on the Islanders with the proverbial "Stanley Cup experience" that is cited by fans, columnists, coaches -- and yes, their new teammates. Since it's an overused term, we can laugh that off as narrative -- what they truly brought was great talent to improve the team. But it's clear that along with their talent they bring credibility with the players, a level of professionalism their teammates respect, and the sage reassurance that even good teams go through bad stretches.
Thankfully this season, the bad stretches have been refreshingly few and brief.
If these additions help the Islanders to go farther in the playoffs than they've been in over 20 years, it will be due to the skill they added to the team. But there is no doubt their calm and "experience," or leadership, or accountability -- use your preferred qualitative term here -- also played a role in maintaining the kind of consistent approach required to survive the season's long journey to get to a destination worth celebrating.