Friday, January 09, 2009

Pittsburgh, We Have a Problem

Pens are in the middle of a losing streak - something we thought we got away from here in Pittsburgh ever since the acquisition of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury & co.

Truth is the Penguins are currently sailing on a leaky ship. It's been leaky since the start of the season, but all the patches have slowly worn away. What's left is a team that flat out sucks.

You can blame it on lots of things, but what it's really got me thinking about is the concept of chemistry within a hockey club.

Can you really have two superstar centers, a star goalie and expect a bunch of random guys to fill in the pieces? Do you need superstars to make it to a Stanley Cup final? Or can you exceed everyone's expectations simply by getting a bunch of guys all on the same page, playing the same system?

I was listening to sports radio talk show host Mark Madden on the way home from work the other day. Mark, well known for being well opinionated, answer a caller's question about team chemistry. The call went something like this:

Caller: Mark, do you think that since the Pens didn't go to West Point this year during training camp, the team chemistry has been lacking? (Note that the past few training camps, the Pens have gone to West Point to participate in physical training exercises and team building activities. This year they didn't have room in their schedule for the trip.)

Mark: No, I think not going to West Point has nothing to do with it. Team building exercises are nice and all, but what they really add to team chemistry is something I question. I think the concept of a team needing to have chemistry is vastly overrated and pushed onto the public by coaches and GMs.

Personally I don't agree with Mark's response. But it got me thinking about an interesting article I read in Wired. The article focused on Ben Waber, a researcher from MIT who spends his time analyzing social interactions within groups and how this relates to group chemistry and productivity. Waber notes:

"In the face-to-face world, though, Waber says, groups are more productive when the team members know each other well, sharing extremely strong links. That's because face-to-face teamwork requires intimacy, he says, and "when you're among friends you can really capitalize on preexisting protocols" — nods, grunts, in-jokes — for talking and listening.

When Waber examines company-wide communications, he can spot inefficiencies — two employees who don't know each other. Introduce them over coffee and —
presto! — the office metabolism accelerates. "

Translating this into hockey dynamics looks something like this - you can introduce a bunch of new guys to players who have been on the team for a few years, but can you realistically expect those new guys to fit in right away? Of course not. You haven't given them a chance to know the other players well, a chance to build friendships and work on chemistry both on and off the ice.

This is the kind of stuff that starts to happen at West Point and training camp. It continues throughout the season, but from what I can tell, chemistry building does not necessarily end when the season stops. It can take teams several years to build up the right group of guys with the team dynamics needed to go all the way. Team chemistry goes beyond sheer talent and skill (although that does certainly help!)

Take a few teams as examples. Look at Boston this year and the way they have climbed to the top of the standings. What interests me about Boston is that no one thought they would be in their current position. They have guys that have decent skills, but no one stands out as "face-of- the-league superstar" (well maybe Kissel). What they do have though is a bunch of guys all buying into a system, playing their assigned roles and really clicking as a team.

Another example might be the current Ottawa Senators. A few years ago, Ottawa was a formidable foe. But team dynamics were badly bruised last year with the shenanigans of goalie Ray Emery. This, among other problems has lead to a team unable to produce as of late. And this is not due to a lack of star power - Spezza, Alfredsson, Heatley are still putting up numbers.

The Penguins have been in both of the above mentioned positions. The past few years we've watched a team slowly come together and take shape. But now it seems something has gone askew. Pittsburgh, we have a problem - and unfortunately it might take several seasons to fix.


Shan said...

I don't believe Ottawa's problem is chemistry. Hartsburg called out his top players for costing them the last game and those top players do have chemistry with each other, supposedly.

I don't believe Boston's success is due to chemistry. The players are improving and Julien has coached them well.

When a team is winning, we assume they have good chemistry.

When a team is losing, we assume they have bad chemistry. And if they're losing, of course their locker room will become unhappy and divided. Everyone has their own ideas for what's wrong.

What matters really is the effectiveness of the system and the ability to execute it.

Teams are made for tournaments. The players haven't played with each other for long, but they can still be successful. Team chemistry does help, but it's not that crucial. You can do fine without it. Occasionally, 2 or 3 players will develop a strong chemistry between them that makes them a dangerous combination on the ice. While it can elevate the game for a few players, I don't think it's vital to success.

As for Pittsburgh... sure it seems like a quick-fix or copout, but in this case, FIRE THERRIEN.

Meaghan said...

I think you have a point about the Penguins. When they traded Colby Armstrong last season, I thought right away that they were dangerously messing with their chemistry and I was quite surprised they managed to make it so far in the playoffs. Then when they lost Malone, Roberts, Laraque, and Conklin in the offseason I thought that was likely to hurt them too. Those guys maybe weren't as important as Crosby and Malkin in terms of putting up points, but I had the impression that they were all well-liked by their teammates and were fairly important in terms of leadership and "team spirit."

As for the Sens, well, I do think Emery screwed up the team chemistry last year. They've had a huge turnover since their Cup run year and they're now just out of sync with each other. Chemistry isn't their only problem (the fact that they're simply not a good team is a bigger problem!) but I think that's the root of it.

k.m.stiles said...

Good post, I really enjoyed reading it.

I think team chemistry adds a lot to a team's success. But it is also about having the "right" players, not just all the superstars, and like you said, having the players buy into the system.

Sarah said...

The Pens might not have gone West Point this season, but they did have the trip to Europe which, while it did involve playing hockey and battling for those points, also should have gone a long way to building chemistry with the new players. I just don't think that's enough to blame their downfall; if it was that easy, teams would be off to retreats all the time.

I think it's about a few things: their stars, while certainly better than the average guy on the ice, are merely human this year, not capable of carrying the entire team for long stretches; a bit of hangover from the loss (this is not at all unprecedented); the players aren't, for whatever reason, working within Therrien's system anymore...

I hate to say it, but I agree, Therrien should be cut free. The Penguins are too good a team on paper to be losing so much, and they need a change. The coach might be the easy scapegoat, but something's gotta give...

Kerri said...

What, you mean spending a lot of money on whoever is available and throwing them on random lines isn't the way to build a team? What?! Jeez. This comes as a complete shock to me.

Fire Therrien. It's time for the guy to go. I think that chemistry is overrated and coaching is underrated in hockey. As Shan perfectly put it, "it's about the effectiveness of the system and the ability to execute it." If the system isn't working, or if the players are unable or unwilling to follow a system, unfortunately it's the system that has to go, which translates to the coach. You can't fire the team.

It doesn't have to be Therrien's fault. Sometimes players stop responding to a coach for whatever reason. Sometimes they get sick of the system. Sometimes new guys come in and don't appreciate the system, or aren't capable of keeping up with it. The question really is if the Pens organization is going to fire the guy who took them to the Finals.

Boston... well, I think they might come down to Earth during the second half, but without a doubt they've been playing awesome hockey, despite the "lack of big names." Is it because they just love each other oh-so much, or because of coaching, development of younger players, great special teams with really good power player (which is a large part strategy) and a decent PK, etc etc.

IMO, chemistry can play a role but it tends to be overrated. Sure, some players play better with others and it's difficult when a team like the Penguins goes from the Stanley Cup Finals to a completely different roster.

Very recently, a Ranger beat writer pointed out that this is the "closest Ranger team in recent memory." They get along great, all good friends, and have a good time together. Which is terrific- for them, anyway. Watching the Rangers plummet to the nowheres of the Eastern Conference hasn't been that fun for me. And the Rangers were a much better team when they had controversial figures; i.e. Avery or Jagr, etc. Malik and Avery got into a fist fight last year during practice. And you know what? It brought some life into the team. They don't need to be best friends, they just need to be teammates.

Nadine said...

A disclosure: Knowing the inner-workings of a goalie's mind means I have a more than healthy respect for not funking with rituals, superstitions, or traditions. And with that out of the way...

I believe the biggest issues involved are all highlighted by the other comments, but I'd rank them this way:

1.) Meaghan's mention of the trades or non-signings definitely play in to the sitch for The Burgh. To me, it seems a few guys who parted ways with the team may have been more integral to their success than was realized...skill- and personality-wise.

2.) I have to then rant in favor of team chemistry. It does exist. In my athletics days, I was on teams where we started with and without it...victory was a lot easier with it. (Now, I work in a dearth of it, and it shows every blessed day on the job.)

Team chemistry - and the collective conditioning of a traditional West Point trip, or lack thereof - can factor into its development. The Europe trip wouldn't necessarily instill the same sense for those who are used to it precisely for the game-related reasons Sarah mentions. (I wonder how much party time could be found in Finland for hockey players? More than plenty, I'm sure.)

3.) Stanley Cup Slump, another intangible and still oddly real phenomenon for the winners and losers in the NHL universe. (Y'know, unless we're talking about recent Redwings wins...then, only God knows.)

I can't say whether firing Therrien is the best move at this point. I'll happily leave that decision to Pens team management and their fans.