When playing the right way is wrong

Ellen Etchingham: Alex Semin and the Ethics of Style

[In response to my defense of] Alex Semin against the character assassination that some commentators have attempted against him […] I was confronted with […] arguments that derived not from Semin’s character, as the McGuire/Crawford/Cox criticism did, but from his style of play. People told me[:] [it’s] not his personality per se, but rather that he does not play the right way. He turns away from the net after a shot rather than crashing it. He dodges hits rather than taking them. He doesn’t battle hard enough for the puck. He doesn’t exhaust himself on his shifts. […] [H]e’s soft, he’s scared, he’s weak. […And] because of those flaws, he’s not actually as good as the evidence suggests.

Canadian hockey is extremely moralistic about style. […] There is a right way to play and a wrong way to play. The right way to play involves throwing big hits, going to the dirty areas of the ice, winning battles on the boards, and dropping your gloves […]. To be considered a ‘good’ hockey player by the Canadian standards, a man must embrace the most aggressive physical aspects of the game, and do so lustily and publicly. Even Canadian skill players pay lip service to these ideals, singing the praises of dumping and chasing and intimidating and shot-blocking, even when their entire game is based on playmaking or sniping.The difference between the way Sidney Crosby talks about how hockey should be played and how he actually plays is dramatic.

Some of the traditional values grew out of tactical evolutions — shot-blocking, for example […] — but others have always been pure stylistic preferences. The mistrust of flashy play has never been anything other than cultural […]. The Canadian ethics of hockey style are a mishmash of qualities that have real strategic value, qualities that used to have strategic value but don’t anymore, and qualities that never had any strategic purpose to begin with.

There is nothing wrong with valuing a certain style aesthetically. Some people just like to watch bruising, physical play, and that’s fine. If the argument is I want this type of player on my team because that’s the type of player I enjoy watching, that is a […] legitimate position […] but [it’s] subjective […]. One person’s enjoyment of a big hit is not ‘better’ than another’s enjoyment of a sick wrist shot. Your love of wide-open hockey is not ‘better’ than my love of precise defensive positioning. […]

And this is the problem: we […] often treat [aesthetic preference] as something that makes certain skills more legitimate than others. We […] become entirely blind to actual performance. I had people telling me that the problem with Semin is that he ‘couldn’t hack it, physically and mentally, in the NHL’. This is a man who has played 469 career games and scored 408 points — if that’s not hacking it in the NHL, nothing is.

[…] [T]he difference between Semin’s playoff production rates and Parise’s is negligible. Yet the way Parise plays [inflates] his status, while the way Semin plays [diminishes] his. This isn’t just liking one way of playing more than another. This is allowing the ethics of style to dramatically distort the public perception of a player’s real contributions to his team’s success.

[…] [This] desire to make play style count for more than results stems from a discomfort with meritocracy. Sports […] reveal the point at which people go from loving meritocracy to hating it, which is generally about when they realize that sometimes achievement has more to do with genetic gifts than hard work. The usual concept of meritocracy in North America is the Horatio Alger version, where people achieve what they do by virtue of dedication and character, but in sports people achieve what they do through dedication, character, and inborn capacities that they had no control over and deserve no moral credit for […].

[…] Nobody really likes the idea that there might be some places in life where some people are just plain better than others. So we […] try to make hockey into an effortocracy. […] Don Cherry goes on TV and begs for this or that prospect to make it, because he’s such a great kid and such a hard worker. Brian Burke holds a press conference and gets angry at the game because there’s no space for Colton Orr, who works so hard, who plays in such a good way. And people get angry at Alex Semin, because his gifts take him so much farther than other people’s hard work takes them, and although by the logic of meritocracy that’s completely fair, it nevertheless feels like a tremendous injustice.

[…] The scoreboard […] doesn’t care how much you care or how hard you try. It doesn’t care if you’re sincere, if you’re strong, if you’re compassionate. In its cold, magnanimous circuits, the […] only thing that matters […] is whether you can force it to change its numbers. […]

We don’t like that, especially when it rewards the sort of personalities we don’t like to read about or the sort of style we don’t like to watch, and we’re constantly trying to convince ourselves that somehow, somewhere, in the space between shots and goals, all the other little things we love about the game really really do matter. And sometimes they do. Sometimes the details of style and character do make small differences that one way or another add up to a number on the scoreboard. But the best those things do is influence the scoreboard. They do not overrule it. […]

When there is a conflict between preexisting ideas about how to play and the results a player gets, when a ‘soft, fragile, scared’ guy like Semin can kill ‘tough, strong, fearless’ fan favorites on the shot clock and the score-sheet, the productive response isn’t to try to come up with excuses for why Semin isn’t actually as good as the evidence suggests […but] to try to learn from that evidence. […] If he doesn’t have what you believe it takes to make it in the NHL, then why is he so obviously making it in the NHL? If he doesn’t do the things you believe are necessary to score, then how is he scoring so much?

[…] To expect all players to play the same way because it’s ‘the right way to play’ will ultimately only quash creativity and freeze the evolution of the game. Does anyone really thing that Semin is suited to be a crashing-the-net, banging-on-the-boards kind of player? Does anybody think he would get more goals if he suddenly tried to be Mike Knuble? Expecting players to play against their gifts is at best destructive and at worst ridiculous. We don’t, after all, get angry at Knuble for not having the talent to be a sniper. Is it really more fair to be angry with Semin for not having the talent for battling in front of the net?

Alex Semin plays the style of game that he is physically, [instinctively], and temperamentally suited to play, and has proven he can make that style of game succeed in the NHL. The question for his team should not be how can we make him to play a different kind of game that he may well be worse at but we find more ethically satisfying? It should be how can we put him in the best possible position to succeed even more?

One of my chief complaints about former Kings coach Terry Murray was that he seemed to require all his players to play the same way. I say “seemed to” because it’s hard to know if, as Etchingham mentions in the post above, he was just paying lip service to the blue-paint/Canadian values or whether he really meant it. I suspect he meant it, since players who didn’t play that way, like Alex Frolov, found themselves the frequent object of public criticism and/or visits to the press box. It has often seemed odd to me that Dean Lombardi would draft players like Oscar Moller, or sign undrafted gems like Teddy Purcell or Matt Moulson, if he really expected them all to play like Mike Richards.

Is it really the case that every line has to be defensively responsible to the same degree and in the same way? Under Terry Murray, it often seemed like the first three lines were all designed to be ​the same, or at least, to play defense the same way (center coming back deep, etc.). But I wondered then (and do still): if every line defends the same way, doesn’t that make the code easier to crack? Why does every line have to have the same values as every other? I ask because it often seemed that Murray’s method when dealing with players like Frolov (or Ponikarovsky) was to say “continue doing what you have done (scoring) while also becoming defensively responsible.” Sounds good, in theory. Except: what if the two are mutually exclusive for a given player? What if making Frolov adhere to the same system as (insert defensive forward) makes it impossible for him to be Frolov? And if Frolov stops being Frolov after successfully executing your defensive system, whose fault is that?

One effect of insisting on one style of play over another is that such a world-view demands less of the coach (and of the players). The benefit of a team being able to play in different modes or styles is obvious. But maybe it’s just too much work — or too difficult — for most coaches. Maybe that’s why the ones who can pull it off — Scotty Bowman comes to mind — are a cut above everyone else.


  11 comments for “When playing the right way is wrong

  1. Jack
    August 6, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    Seeing as Semin is getting paid 7 million next year, I’d say at least some people think he plays hockey the right way. But then again, so is Scott Gomez. Hmm…

    I personally don’t see anything wrong with what Murray did in asking players to all play the same way… to a degree. You naturally need to make sure everyone is on the same page so there’s no blaming each other, no special exceptions, etc. The problem to me seems that he was never able to rest on that and move beyond it.

    Everyone from the Kings org (especially Lombardi) made mention that the team owed Murray for setting the team up for their future success, giving them good foundations and a solid team identity and such. I’ve definitely heard a few opinions that he’ll be a great developmental coach for the Phantoms next season. So I’m wondering if Murray was always going to only be able to take the Kings so far and that the main issue was Lombardi being as loyal to him as he possibly could before the pressure was on his own neck and not Murray’s.

    • USHA#17
      August 6, 2012 at 2:50 PM

      Three seasons ago it was pretty amazing to watch as Murray moved players up, down and sideways while always seeming to get what he needed out of his lines. The interchangeability was remarkable. And, not a lot went in as far as line matching during games.

      You mention loyalty to Murray, that’s one thing I wondered about, the timing of the change. Of course hindsight makes the move genus but what were the real factors behind the timing?

      Could it have been finding someone available? Waiting until the right moment when team hit bottom (in which case Lombardi cut it pretty close)? Related to dumping Johnson and bringing in Carter (too much for Murray to handle)? Or, some other factor(s)?


      • August 6, 2012 at 10:53 PM

        In my opinion, the team was ready for a coaching change as early as the previous year but in 2010-11 there was no Mike Richards, and Doughty wasn’t getting $7MM a year. Lombardi committed himself to a higher standard with that trade and contract. The 2011-12 team couldn’t be given as long a leash as the previous, “rebuilding” teams had.

        I don’t think there’s any significance to the timing of Murray’s firing vis-a-vis the Carter/Johnson deal. Howson could hardly have traded Carter earlier, since he had only just dealt for him last summer, AND Carter was injured. Howson was certainly hoping the team would turn things around, or Carter would click with whomever, or Nash would want to stay, or some other magic fairy dust would sprinkle down from above and save him from himself. All of that worked out pretty well for Lombardi, coinciding with Voynov proving himself and Johnson having played great when Doughty was hurt. Johnson was utterly expendable, while also being an A-list trade chip. How often does that happen?

        • USHA#17
          August 7, 2012 at 8:49 AM

          Good point about keeping the project in check. More so given the organization’s history of arriving at jump off point only to lose discipline.

          I felt Johnson played a one man “I’ll save poor Nell” game. I imagine Lombardi was relieved when Johnson set that mentality aside when filling in for Doughty (I know I was).

          “How often” may be playing out a second time with Bernier.

        • Uni
          August 8, 2012 at 12:38 PM

          I remember you mentioning on JftC way back about how the Kings were “boring” to watch. I wasn’t nearly as bored once Sutter got settled in and the Kings at least appeared to be playing with greater freedom and creativity. I wonder if Lombardi picked up on the “boring” part at all, or if that type of perspective even registers with him?

          I bring this up not only because as you said the leash was shorter, but wonder to what extent the players were bored themselves, frustrated with Murray’s system and famously “gripping their sticks too hard” as a result.

          I know DL reportedly called the team out after the firing, but he had to do that. What good would a scapegoat do? I feel like not only was the leash shorter but all the elements of the perfect storm were there and DL had to notice that the “character” team he had built was not rising to occasion, and no matter where he put the blame, there had to be something dulling their productivity, and perhaps their spirit. And given the kinds of guys he assembled into a team, it couldn’t just be character flaws, again despite his public wondering if he had put together the right group, which again I think is more tough love, buck up mind games for the players.

          • August 8, 2012 at 6:26 PM

            I just don’t think Murray was/is a good motivator. There was too much distance between him and the players. Sutter changed that.

  2. Dan H.
    August 6, 2012 at 11:06 AM

    I like that you bring up Frolov. He’s a puck control guy that took two players to get him off the puck. Murray liked the puck control system and preached it ad-nauseum but when Fro didn’t put up the numbers (he still had 19 goals on a third line his last year here), or he made one gaffe it was into the stands to watch for a game or two. when other players made mistakes they were allowed to keep playing.
    TM had a double standard when it came to some players and that was the frustrating part of his coaching. He did instill a great defensive mental style to the players which we in LA have NEVER seen before. That did benefit Sutter when he came in and loosened the reigns a little and let some of them create.

    • USHA#17
      August 6, 2012 at 2:40 PM

      It was Frolov’s fault. If only he didn’t look like he was smiling all the time.

      • August 6, 2012 at 10:40 PM

        King also looks like he’s smiling all the time.

    • Garrett79
      August 11, 2012 at 7:25 PM

      I kinda disagree with the assessment that Murray was about puck control. When Murray coached the Kings, they played an awful lot of dump-and-don’t-bother-chasing. I remember many a time when Handzus would steal the puck in the neutral zone, have plenty of time to make a play, but instead would just flip it back down for the other team to try again to beat that defense-first/defense-only system.

      Handzus also got a lot of praise for playing in the system. A guy like Dustin Brown, on the other hand, would regularly try to single-handedly deke his way around two or three defenders and inevitably lose control of the puck. I don’t recall Brown ever having once been benched for even a period by Murray. Frolov would make one bad defensive play and not only would he not see the ice again that game, he’d spend the next one in the stands.

      It’s these kinds of things that make me thank the Maker Murray finally had his ass canned this year.

  3. chester
    January 14, 2013 at 4:35 AM

    Some guys just need to get out of LA and Manchester and have the opportunity to shine elsewhere, case in point, the likes of Matt Moulson and Teddy Purcell. I can list a handful of guys that are stuck playing for Manchester, that would be playing in the NHL on another team if they were not being buried in the minors under contract with LA.

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