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Kessel and close calls in Montreal: No judging simply because a shot did—or didn’t—go in

Last night’s game in Montreal was a classic example of something I’ve wanted to discuss for some time.  The Leafs, and Kessel in particular, had –and created— all kinds of chances all night long, yet couldn’t close the deal against Price in goal.

The great pass in front of the net from Bozak to Kadri mid-way through the third was a clear example of what I’m talking about.  If that great chance ends up in the Montreal net, Bozak gets a beauty of an assist, Toronto is in the game and we’re in for a wild finish.  Same thing when Kulemin was in alone with a few minutes left.

Did the Leafs play poorly offensively?  To me, no.  (Yes, there were some turnovers that created issues going the other way, but that’s a story for another day.)

On this note, in May of 2008, I penned a piece (on my Prospect Communications Inc. web site) I had been meaning to write for some time.  I reflected on a quote from Bill Self, the basketball coach at Kansas after his team won the NCAA championship that spring, which voiced my personal sentiment pretty well.

One of his players made a tough shot late in the game to secure the victory, and the championship.  After the game Self told reporters

“I don’t think just because a guy makes a guarded shot with 2.1 seconds left makes me any different than if he hadn’t made the shot”.

What he was really saying, in part, was just because his player made that shot, did not make him a better coach.
 If the player had missed the shot, did that make Self a lesser coach, or somehow a loser?


And this has been something I’ve felt and believed myself for many, many years. 

We maybe too often judge someone's "success" on things that they can't really control completely.  We say someone is a “champion” when they play on a team that had ultimate success and wins a Super Bowl, World Series or Stanley Cup.

But for me, that’s not exclusively why they are a “winner”, or why they should get into a Hall-of-Fame or be seen as successful.

Fact is, sometimes it’s a split second, or a mere fraction of an inch—in other words, old-fashioned “luck” or good or poor fortune—which makes someone a “winner”, or a champion at a given moment in time.

If Brett Hull had been ‘called’ (an official’s decision, nothing to do with ability or hard work) for having his toe in the crease during that ridiculous era in the NHL, and Dallas went on to lose that game and the Cup in that late 1990s series, would Brett and his teammates be considered  “champions” today?

We often judge an athlete way too harshly, or a coach, for that matter, based on outcomes that are largely out of their control.

Bringing this back to the Leafs, when Kessel couldn’t miss earlier this season, folks were anticipating a 40+ goal season.  Still might happen.  Like most scorers, he is a streaky guy.  He’s scored a couple in recent games.  Same with Vertseeg.  We wondered if this guy would ever start scoring, but, stepping back, it was really just a matter of a relatively few games where his shots weren’t going in.  Now, they are.  Just not Saturday night in Montreal.

Over their recent “slumps”, both have made many great plays and just missed scoring, or earning an assist after a great set-up on several occasions.  Because they “missed” on a good opportunity or hit the post, or a line mate didn’t convert a great pass, does that mean they are playing poorly?  Not necessarily.

Sometimes the same good effort, the same creativity and the same skill or hard work, whatever, that gets you a goal or an assist in one scenario comes up empty for you on other occasions.

That’s why it is not accurate or fair to simply look at a player’s stat line and judge how they are doing.

We have to see what we see, not just look at the box score the next day.  Are they making plays, doing the little things in their own zone, eliminating guys from the play?  They may not score as often as they (or fans)would like, but if they are doing those other things well, they are still contributing.

(It’s not unlike assessing a pitcher in baseball.  He may give be hit hard, but manage to earn a win and have a nice ”stat” line.  Similarly, a guy may pitch very well but get beat by dinks and dunks all night.  His numbers are poor, but he actually pitched well.  If you haven’t actually seen the individual pitch, you really have no idea how he did.)

Someone who has been following hockey, or any sport, with thoughtful eyes over many decades knows when he sees a player seeming to give their all.  They see a guy playing well—or not.  Sometimes guys are playing pretty well but not finishing.  It happens all the time. It happened to the Leafs against Montreal, whereas against Nashville in the big comeback, the shots went in.

If it was easy, everyone would do it—everyone would score 50 goals a year.

So whether it’s the Leafs or anybody else, it’s always good to step back and analyze effort and quality, as opposed to just the end result when assessing a player or a coach.

As Bill Self said, he’s not a better coach because a player made a particular shot.  Now, as a coach, you might create an environment where players can perform with more confidence, yes.  But by and large, we fans are sometimes too quick to say someone is in a slump, is champion, or is a winner or loser.

The game in Montreal was just the most recent example.  Tons of chances and the puck wouldn't go in.  The Leafs were skating, driving to the net, nothing worked.

So let's judge the effort, not the outcome.

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