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When talent isn't enough
Early in the season, the Lightning and Leafs are already on emotional roller-coaster rides

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Saturday, October 12, 2019 – Page S11

TORONTO -- Yes, it's early. But in the NHL, it's never too early for a good, ol' fashioned existential freak-out.

"Unless we change things, it's going to be a really, really, really long year," Steven Stamkos said after Tampa Bay's third game of the year. Third.

Then the Lightning slapped the Toronto Maple Leafs around for 60 minutes and it was Morgan Rielly's turn: "We have to be way better."

In this case, it's Game 5. Of 82.

Even by Toronto's standard, that seems a bit gun-jumpy.

This year, there is no sense of impending doom surrounding the high-expectation, hard-luck NHL set. There is just present doom.

Everything is a bad omen. Every on- or off-ice blip connects back to disappointments of the past, as well as acting as a predictor of a terrible future.

Two days ago, it was "Why can't John Tavares score?" - as though Tavares wasn't ever going to score again.

After Tavares scored, it's "Why can't the Leafs play defence?" - as though they will let in seven goals every game.

Presumably, if Toronto gets a shutout against the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday night, it will be "Why didn't John Tavares play in net?" For some teams, it's always something. Those are the teams that exhaust themselves over the regular season, then seem surprised when things go wrong in April.

While there is a lot of argument in the modern NHL about what sort of team is best equipped to win - small and fast, big and tough, one with a goalie who's been bathed in holy waters - there is rather less about which of two emotional types you'd like to be.

There are those teams who are slick and doubt themselves and those that aren't and don't. There doesn't tend to be a lot of crossover.

The Leafs and Lightning are extreme examples of the first type. The Boston Bruins and St.

Louis Blues would be on the other end of the spectrum. You see what I'm getting at here.

Tampa and Toronto have bought heavily into the idea of skill. There are very few tough nuts on either team, no Brad Marchands or Alex Pietrangelos.

The sort of players who think of themselves as grinders, although they are a lot better than that.

This is one drawback to putting so much focus on skill and to constantly reinforcing how important that is.

It means you are collecting a certain sort of person, as well as certain sort of player.

Anyone who works in a creative business knows that the talent can be, well, strange. High strung. Prone to swings of emotion. When things are going well, they're top of the pops. And when they aren't, it's Chicken Little time.

I won't say that all of you have, at some point in your professional life, found yourself pacing around a parking lot screaming bloody murder into your phone because someone has had the gall - the unmitigated gall - to suggest you pull a couple of dodgy lines from your column. Sure, they're doing it for your own good, but you're still hopping up and down and shrieking as if you're Hemingway and they're cutting the first line of The Old Man and the Sea.

I'm not saying you've done that, but there are people out there who have.

A good work force pairs flighty types with more even-keeled colleagues. But your workplace doesn't have a separate room upstairs for journalists so that they can watch you while you're at your desk and then publish opinions about how you handled the Jones file.

This is becoming the real regular-season problem of teams such as the Leafs and the Lightning. It's not that they have no confidence in themselves because they have no talent. They have no confidence in themselves because they do.

Talent creates an expectation of results. When those results are thwarted, those teams are not allowed to say, "This will work eventually." There is a strong urge to say, "Maybe we should change everything and see if that works."

This isn't helped by a lot of outside noise telling them that, however much they change, it's either not enough or way too much. When things are working, that's a set up for disappointment. When they aren't, same goes.

Tampa coach Jon Cooper seems to enjoy the attention that comes with a visit to Toronto. He seemed to enjoy it less on Thursday, when a lot of questions boiled down to: "How devastated are you by last year's playoffs? A crippling amount or enough that you can still just barely get out of bed in the morning?" Cooper is unusually suave for a hockey coach, but even he seemed wrong-footed.

"If we're fortunate enough to make the playoffs, hopefully, if we do, win a round, we're probably going to hear [about last year's collapse] all the way until then," he said.

Fortunate enough to make the playoffs? Is Tampa Bay so twitchy now that that's where the bar's at? Is the team really so unsure of itself that it thinks lowballing its own chances so outrageously is the only way to stave off criticism?

Yes, talented teams win Cups.

They're all pretty talented in the NHL. Talent is not the ultimate arbiter of achievement. That's why nobody repeats as champion any more. Fifteen years after the introduction of the salary cap, the system has reached a point of relative equilibrium.

But we all know from our own lives that you do not succeed if you don't think you can. You don't succeed if your focus is on doing everything perfectly, all the time. And you especially don't succeed if your plan changes hour by hour, depending on what other people are telling you.

It grows clearer with each passing year that the regular season no longer matters in the NHL. Home ice is overrated. Fitness and momentum are not.

The NHL is beginning to take on an Olympic feel - the goal isn't to do well all the time, but to pace yourself so that you peak at one specific time.

With that in mind, maybe it'd be better for the Leafs and the Lightning to worry much less about last night's game, and focus much more on preparing for the ones they're going to be playing in six months. Because that's what confidence looks like.

Associated Graphic

Montreal's Brett Kulak and Toronto's John Tavares chase the puck during a game last Saturday. The Maple Leafs seem to already be in panic mode, Cathal Kelly writes, including freaking out when it took new captain Tavares five games to notch his first goal of the season.


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