The mantra ever since Dale Hunter became coach of the Washington Capitals has been “play well and you’re in.” It’s been that way for the goalies, veteran net-crashing right wingers and Czech defenseman. Jeff Schultz and John Erskine too. But we have to wonder, is it the right way to do things on the NHL level, especially with more veteran players?
Negative reinforcement can be a powerful thing. So too is a fear of failure. Different personalities are motivated in different ways, and we’ve seen this play out with the Caps over the last few weeks.
Michal Neuvirth and Jeff Schultz seem to be playing better after their stints on the bench. Of course, that might be anecdotal. Schultz has always had his strengths and weaknesses, and riding the pine for 20 games hasn’t — and wasn’t — going to turn him into Chris Pronger. With Neuvirth, it might simply be a case of getting the opportunity to play after becoming an afterthought while Tomas Vokoun played so well for that stretch.
But the impression we’ve been led to believe is that these two players kept their mouths shut (at least in the press), worked hard in practice, and took advantage of the ice time when someone else on the roster failed.
Hunter said as much after practice Tuesday morning. “[Schultz] didn’t say anything, he just went out, worked hard in practice and it proves a point….When you do get in and you play well, like Schultzie has, he deserves to be in the lineup and that’s what bumps out another guy.”
Of course, we’ve also seen the opposite. Mike Knuble has been openly disappointed about being a healthy scratch. Same with Roman Hamrlik, and he’s even taken the benching personally, calling Hunter out for benching him for a “bad penalty” with a snide remark about Hunter’s, ahem, experience in that realm.
Hunter mentioned that he hadn’t spoken with either player other than they weren’t playing Tuesday against the New York Islanders and to “get ready to play; you never know when you get in.”
The coach continued: “If Hammer or Knubes get in and they play well, they’ll bump out another guy. That’s the way it is.”
But this should come as no surprise. Hunter has been meting out playing time in this fashion his entire OHL career in London. He said this is the way he would coach when he took over. Caps Radio Network’s Ben Raby caught up with the Islanders’ John Tavares, one of Hunter’s players in London, before Tuesday night’s game and Tavares reinforced the idea.
It’s one thing to threaten 18-year old Juniors with a reduction in ice time. Maybe it worked in the case of Neuvirth and Schultz, two still relatively young NHLers. But with Vokoun, Knuble, Hamrlik and Erskine, maybe that tactic is less effective. Maybe all it reinforces is a negative attitude toward the disciplinarian.
Of course, Brooks Laich has a mere nine points in 25 games since New Year’s Day and is playing on one leg, so it appears that at least in one occasion the “play well” mantra has been overlooked.
I don’t claim to know the answer. I’m certainly not a psychologist. If you’re adjusting playing time according to skill, history, speed, age, match-ups, etc., that’s one thing. I don’t think anyone would argue with a coach that is trying to make his team better. And if that’s what’s going on, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m just trying to play the players I think will give us a better chance to win.”
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.