James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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A Matter of Perception

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


If you could hook up a camera to a hockey fan’s mind and utter the phrase “choker,” you’d probably capture an image of a wide array of players. Most of them would be unfair, but instinctive. Perhaps it would be a guy who never won a Stanley Cup in his otherwise distinguished career. Maybe it’s just a shadowy figure wearing a San Jose Sharks jersey. Phil Kessel might be inexplicably involved.


One name that almost certainly wouldn’t pop up is Jonathan Toews.


As a guy who is almost as versatile as he is talented, the 25-year-old captain’s face has practically been etched into the Mount Rushmore of Hockey Leadership at this point. People might make fun of him for being “Captain Serious,” but when you compare his image to that of other players, it’s easy to think of him as Mark Messier 2.0 (or Brian Trottier 3.0?).


I frown upon condemning a player just because he’s had an unproductive series or even playoff run.


Any number of factors can play into a bad break when the lanes get tighter and the games get bigger. An undisclosed injury has just as much of a chance of slowing a player down as a “lack of heart.” Sometimes a sharpshooter suddenly looks aimless because he’s trying - and failing - to beat a red-hot goalie. (Alex Ovechkin is nodding his head SO HARD at those last two points.)


SELECTIVE ABUSE


Still, if you’re going to throw an unproductive player under the bus, don’t you need to throw them all under the bus equally? Or does some prior success act as a bullet-proof vest for criticism?


Those are important questions for a case like Toews’ current predicament. After scoring 23 goals in 47 regular season games, he’s failed to score a single goal in eight postseason games. If Toews was a Russian last name, one can only imagine the kind of harsh labels that would be thrown around (“enigmatic” would probably be the nicest).


WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME


It’s not as if Toews isn’t trying. The talented center has fired 28 SOG in Chicago’s eight playoff games, averaging out to 3.5 per contest. That includes a whopping seven in Monday’s 3-1 loss in Game 3 to the Detroit Red Wings.


To me, that boils down to a combination of bad luck and solid opposing goaltending. Both Jonas Hiller and Jimmy Howard have produced some outstanding work against the ‘Hawks, even in up-and-down series.


A MATTER OF RESOURCES


If a shrug and a “them’s the breaks,” isn’t sufficient explanation (and the possibility of an injury doesn’t float), then perhaps it stems from the Blackhawks’ fading depth. Those who buy in to the fact that the playoffs allow teams to really scout opponents and focus upon stopping top guys will notice that Toews’ numbers have dropped significantly after the ‘Hawks lost key supporting scorers like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd.


Toews in 2008-09 and 09-10: 39 games played, 14 goals and 28 assists for 42 points

Toews in 2010-11, 11-12 and 13: 21 games played, three goals and nine assists for 12 points


Both cases present small sample sizes and different circumstances, yet if you’re REALLY digging for something, maybe it’s evidence that he’s struggled to shoulder more of the scoring burden after winning a Conn Smythe?


CONCLUSIONS


So, what does it all mean?


To me, it’s all an important lesson in sports perception. Toews has been deified by pundits and sports writers as a gutsy, do-it-all player who never says die. While I still think he’s a fantastic, difference-making guy who could very well swing this second-round series if things start bouncing his way, he’s also a useful vessel for various discussions about how nationalism and wild assumptions can paint players into corners (and sometimes influence fantasy owners more than they should).


Really, it’s fitting that Jaromir Jagr is also stuck at zero goals on 28 SOG. The surefire Hall-of-Famer could very well have lost out on a few Hart Trophy nods because sportswriters were eager to hand the MVP to the Hardworking Canadian Golden Boy of the Moment (i.e. Joe Thornton, Eric Lindros, etc.).


While Boston residents and observers may wonder if the aging star really “cares,” he might just be the victim of some poor puck luck. His outstanding playoff resume should speak for itself.


Yet deep down, even some very keen people would admit that they’d probably give Toews the benefit of the doubt much quicker than they would with Jagr.


(Hey, Toews did get to those 28 SOG in one fewer game, after all.)


SOMETHING SPEZZA


I must admit that I didn’t expect Jason Spezza  to return for the Ottawa Senators in Game 3. Of course, I didn’t expect Erik Karlsson to play again this season and didn’t think it would end well. So far, I’m wrong in both cases.


Spezza was the first to admit that he wasn’t the same super-creative guy you expect to normally see in Game 3. It might take him some time to ramp up, too.


Still, when you consider how scant the resources are in playoff pool free agent groups, Spezza could be a home run. That’s especially true in leagues where each round is weighted more heavily and the Ottawa Senators are at least putting up more of a fight than some might have expected against the Pittsburgh Penguins.


Spezza logged 18:40 TOI, which is a little bit less than what he normally receives in a full game (and Game 3 went into double overtime). The best part was his four SOG, though. Maybe he’s simplifying his game, but at least he’s looking active.


Of course, it remains to be seen how he reacts after the just-got-back adrenaline wears off.


INJURIES AND QUICK HITS (full list)


Zdeno Chara leads all defensemen with 10 points. He had just 19 in the regular season, so yeah, he’s producing more offense than most expected … Francois Beauchemin underwent knee surgery. It’ll be interesting to see if he has the mobility to match a surprisingly successful 2014 season … Eric Staal suffered a scary knee issue of his own overseas at the hands (or knees) of Alex Edler. Details are scarce, naturally, but at least he’ll get some time to heal up … Raffi Torres won’t play until the conference finals, if the San Jose Sharks make it. Only the NHL could make a guy with his history of iffy/over-the-line hits something of a sympathetic figure … Martin Havlat’s gotta be at least half-considering retirement at this point, right? Not saying he should, just saying … If Tomas Vokoun’s leash is so short that he gets yanked for Marc-Andre Fleury after allowing two goals in a double-OT loss, then the Penguins are a little weird.



James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
Email :James O'Brien



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