SUN Hockey Pool

"Meaningless" games key time to evaluate

JASON YORK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:04 PM ET

There are two times in an NHL season when teams can really make mistakes in evaluating players — at the end of training camp, and at this time of the season, when teams are out of the playoff picture.

I was on many teams where young players looked like stars in the pre-season, only to fall flat on their faces when the speed and intensity of the games picked up in November.

By the time the team figured out it had made a huge mistake in thinking the young player was ready for the NHL, the dependable veteran — whose job they gave to the up-and-comer who dominated the pre-season — had already been sent packing.

Then there’s the second situation — the one the Senators are in right now.

When teams know they aren’t going to make the post-season, a common refrain among coaches and media is that’s when players reveal their true character — good or bad. Players gain esteem in coaches’ and GMs’ eyes when they continue to play hard in “meaningless” games down the stretch.

I’ve been in that situation, on teams that are outside the playoff picture looking in. I agree it’s important as a professional to keep battling, to keep competing hard every game, and that’s the approach a player must take every shift, no matter where his team sits in the standings.

But I can also tell you that the pressure the Senators are now facing is much different than the pressure they faced when expectations were much higher in this city back in October.

There’s always pressure to perform if you are a professional athlete. You face it every game and every practice, every day. But the big pressure, the pressure that you feel when you know you have to win in order to get into the playoffs, is the real measuring stick as far as the regular season goes. In the playoffs, when four losses in a series will end your season, the pressure intensifies that much more.

When that feeling is lifted, as it has been for the Senators, players perform differently.

Don’t get me wrong — players always feel pressure to keep their jobs or to earn another big contract. But when making the playoffs is no longer a realistic goal, many players loosen up and, consequently, their games improve.

This is where teams sometimes make mistakes in evaluating talent when they think a player in such a situation is suddenly showing his “true colours” after struggling most of the season.

Many players are able to rise to the occasion and have big nights when they’re playing for a team with a “nothing to lose” attitude because the pressure to get into the post-season tournament is gone.

However, the truly great players are the ones who play well consistently, night in and night out. They don’t suddenly elevate their games when the playoff pressure is off — they play hard and try their best to help their team win every game.

Pressure and the ability to perform when it’s at its greatest is what separates good players from great players, and inconsistent players from reliable players.

I guarantee you some players will have great finishes to the regular season for the Senators. Hopefully for the future of the franchise, the powers that be watch carefully and make the right decisions on which players to keep in an Ottawa uniform and which to cut loose.


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