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Using Phil Kessel as just one example, what does it really mean to be “playing well”?

Those of you who drop by here on occasion may have noticed something I tend to mention on occasion.  That is, that I’m not always sure offensive “production” is a sign of how well a given performer may or may not actually be playing at a certain point in time.

I have sometimes used Phil Kessel as just one example.  I know that he has many supporters, and some detractors, in Leaf town.  I get both sides of that debate, especially as it ties into what the Leafs gave up to get him, which some fans think is simply ancient history and should not be raised as a point of discussion.  (I don’t feel that way; it’s not a question of "getting over it”.  I just believe it was a huge deal and of course will always be fodder for debate, as it should be, as we weigh the pros and cons of the trade for years to come.  If fans can’t debate the huge player moves, our role is pretty tiny, eh?)

But my point today is this:  when people sometimes get frustrated with Phil’s so-called “slumps” (i.e. when he is not scoring goals), do those times necessarily mean he is not playing well?  That is, if he is not contributing goals and assists, is he automatically “slumping”?

My view is:  not necessarily.  In the same way that, if he is in fact scoring goals, that does not necessarily mean that the guy is playing really well.

I will try to explain what I mean.  (I may not have done a god job in the past at trying to define this nuance that I am opining about.  I may not today, either…)

In my mind, there are times that I am watching Kessel (and it could be just about anybody else, for that matter, but I have picked him because his obvious perceived major contribution is as a “goal-scorer" in Toronto) over a period of time and he is not scoring goals.  People will say he is "slumping".   But at times, I see him playing precisely the same way I see him many other occasions, including when he is potting some important goals.

The difference?  The puck is simply not going in for him.  Full stop.

And by that I mean, do we criticize him or call "slump" simply because the puck didn’t go in?  If a player makes the same move, takes the same shot, but it bounces off the inside of the post and out, or off the post and in, has he “played” any differently?

No.  Only the outcome is different.

Similarly, player "x" may be doing precious little out there, but a teammate takes a shot and it goes off "x's" butt and finds the back of the net.  Then "x" come down the wing and shoots one between the goalie's legs.  It’s a two-goal night and if "x's" team wins, he's the game’s first star in many cases.

But did he play well?

So let’s look a bit further at, in my mind, what it means to “play well”.

Sure, I will concede that someone who can “finish”—actually puck the puck in the net—on a regular basis is a valuable individual to have around in most cases.  Someone who rarely “finishes” may be less valuable.

Emphasis on the word “may”.

Again, I cite Kessel.  He is expected to score goals because that, if we must categorize him and put him in a box, is his best “thing”.  So if he ends up with 35 goals on the season, does that automatically equal a “good” year?


Now, what if he scores those goals in only 20 games, because has has a lot of two-goal games?  That means that in 62 other regular-season games, he scores zero goals.

Does that, in turn, make him a bum those nights?

Here’s what I’m getting at.  (I like Kessel as a player, by the way.  Don’t love him, but I like his speed, his jump, his ability to see the ice and make plays.) When I watch a player, I’m looking for certain things. Is he working smart, going to the right places, anticipating the play well in all zones?  Does he finish his checks when it’s time to do that?  Does he use his stick well?  Does he let his man go at bad times?  Does he float coming back? Is he willing to go to the dirty areas?  Is he effective in the corners? Is he working on his deficiencies?

Those are just some of the things a lot of us look for—all the while recognizing that different players bring different skills and traits to the table.  (Everyone should be able to consistently work hard,  but that's a post for another day…)

Now, again I concede that a guy may do the above things I look for poorly in a game, but if he finishes the night with a hat trick and his team wins, most coaches (and fans) won’t complain because you got what you came for:  two points.

But I’m simply trying to suggest that the end result, the outcome, the classic definition of “production”—goals and assists—is not the only barometer of what a guy brings to the table.

When you see someone blocking shots at key times, winning faces, angling off his man, making a play in front of his own net to prevent a dangerous pass from getting through, chipping a puck out safely, eliminating his man, all these things are small yet invaluable things that are part of the thousands of moments that make up an NHL game.

And what I’m trying to indicate is that, in my view, someone like Kessel, if he is doing those things, and also getting open and making plays and taking shots, but the puck won’t go in some nights (because he just missed his spot, or the goalie made a phenomenal save), well, to me, he is still playing very well.

Now again, sometimes when the puck just won’t “go in” and that happens a few games in a row, we, as fans (and even coaches, I notice, sometimes) will suggest the player is in a “slump”.  And at times, the guy is still doing other important things, just not scoring.  So for me, he is still playing well, just not finishing.

Now, what I think sometimes happens is a guy is playing well, but when he isn’t finishing (if he is “supposed” to be a scorer), well, after a few games, he may begin to take short-cuts, feeling he’s got to find a way to puck the puck in the net—fast.  And then other parts of his game may well suffer, and then he, in fact, stops doing those other important little things.

Then he is playing “poorly”.

So to be clear, if you see me defending certain players as the upcoming season wears on, even when they are in a “slump”, it will likely be because I believe, from what I am seeing with my own eyes, that they are working hard, working smart, but they are simply having some tough luck when it comes to scoring goals.  And if they are scoring goals but I still don’t think they’re playing well, I will reserve the right to point that out, too.

Does anyone see things the same way? 


  1. When you're a goal scorer, you can be in a slump while still playing well... it doesn't seem like a subtle nuance to me. If the puck isn't going in, you're in a slump.

    Slump isn't interchangeable with "playing well", although not playing well usually leads to a slump, and being in a slump can lead to frustration and poor play.

    If a person's play is slumping, that's poor overall performance... a scoring slump means only that.

    It's up to the person using the word to define the scope of the slump... if they're talking about a goal-scorer and don't specify performance or production, I'd assume the slump is in goal production... easy peasy.

  2. I always watch for the way a player is playing. Is he finishing his checks? Is he covering his man? Is he making good passes? Is he willing to fight for the puck? Is he in position? And so on. As a team, the Leafs have fallen short in a number of those categories over the past few years. And, whether a top forward is in a slump or not, you usually won't win many games unless the above things are being taken care of. But you can't expect more of a player than is there. Kessel will never be Lucic, say, so to expect him to play that way is unfair. Effort has to be assessed on capability, for sure.
    A scoring slump is something else entirely. (By the way, isn't "slump" a great word? Sounds exactly like what it is.) I venture to say that every great player in any sport goes through slumps. Let's face it - it isn't easy to score at the top league level, even at the best of times. A player shoots from the same shot five times - it deflects wide twice, is blocked once, is stopped by the goalie once, and scores the fifth time. The hockey gods are forever inscrutable, and capricious, when it comes to who gets goals and why! You can tilt the odds in your favour - lines that develop that "second sense" about where each player is likely to be in certain situations certainly score more often. But when it's not going in, it's effort, as defined above, that usually leads to a slump's end.
    The problem for designated scorers, like Kessel, is that fans generally don't care whether he's finishing his checks or making that great pass - they want him to score, spectacularly, almost every time he shoots. As a result, he gets lots of negative attention when the pucks aren't going in. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been playing well. His scoring touch makes him a double threat, but his playmaking skills have been overlooked because he hasn't yet had line mates who could anticipate his passes.
    Maybe this will be the year!

  3. I think this may be where one of those immeasurable things, mental status, comes into play. If a player is struggling with managing stress, over-tired, too busy with things alongside hockey, I can see how easily it would be to have real production drop off. The stories of how the Canucks were attempting to get the team's sleep issues resolved last season were kind of interesting, and may have given them the edge they needed to get to the SCF. As a life-long sufferer of depression and it's related issues, I sometimes wonder if any teams have not only a doctor, but a professional counselor on staff.........
    And it's not necessarily that the player has to be "happy" or stress-free, it's that they have to be mentally in game-mode, which, in all likelihood means vastly different things for each individual.

  4. KidK, thanks for an important comment. You provide a deeper perspective than we typically bring to our analysis of athletes and performance. Thanks for sharing and for your comments.

    It makes me think a bit about Ron Ellis, who of course was a fine Leaf (with a short retirement in the middle) over about 15 seasons from the 1960s to the early 1980s. His book a few years ago shed light on a most-important subject. Is it fair to say (I think he has mentioned this himself) that he might have had an even better career had he had some assistance during those difficult times?

  5. Thinking back on my life in sports, there were periods where my normally inextinguishable competitive hunger just disappeared because I was in a hard depressive cycle. Pros are just as human as we are, as we've seen in a crystal-clear fashion this summer.

  6. Gerund O'...I support your points. Not fair to expect players to be what they are not, but effort can always be there.

    And "slumps" is one of the words that can mean different things to different people. I think that's why I wrote this particular post.

    Also agree that Kessel has playmaking skills that may show more this season. We tend to focus on him as the "scorer" but there is more to his game than that.