Phil Kessel and Alex Ovechkin did themselves no favors this summer by fueling the perception that they aren't working hard to be the best players they can be.
There's a vintage letter that makes the rounds at this time every year . It was written by former Maple Leafs general manager Punch Imlach to Jim Pappin. In his epistle, Imlach sets out the team's expectations for the veteran forward when he arrives at Toronto's training camp. After establishing that “golf is a must,” Imlach makes it clear that Pappin is “expected to report in good condition and not more than 7 pounds over your playing weight, with a minimum of being able to do 20 push ups, 20 sit ups and 30 knee bends.”
It's a quaint relic from a time when players used a month-long camp to work themselves into game shape, long before the NHL (and every feeder circuit below it) became obsessed with year-round super-fitness.
The dedication that's expected of players today could buckle the knees of even the most ardent gym rat. But that's the standard that's been set by top performers in pursuit of personal excellence and Stanley Cup glory.
Consider Sidney Crosby, a player coming off an MVP season and his best personal results in years. He might have his detractors around the league, but even his harshest critics have to admit that there's no room to question Crosby's commitment to maximizing his potential. Think about his summer. Outside of that phony arrest story from the QMI Agency, what have you heard? Sid's training in Florida. Sid's training in Nova Scotia. Sid's training in Colorado. It paints a picture of Crosby as the consummate modern professional, an elite athlete driven to leave nothing on the table.
The same can be said of Steven Stamkos, who devotes his off-season to suffering under the notoriously strict guidance of super-trainer Gary Roberts, and others like John Tavares, Matt Duchene, and Nathan MacKinnon who dive headlong into self improvement. That's not to say they don't let loose every now and then, but their dedication is unquestioned.
That's why it's so shocking when a player thumbs his nose at expectations as explicitly as Phil Kessel did last week. Without being specifically prompted, the Maple Leafs sniper told the Toronto media, “Honestly, I skated maybe ... I don’t want to tell you this, but I skated 10 times maybe all summer.” He was also at the center of an odd report in which assistant coach Steve Spott told a coaches clinic in August that Kessel had refused to participate in a new breakout play that Spott had designed and is, in the coach's estimation "15 pounds overweight."
Now, no one's surprised to hear that Kessel didn't spend his summer doing incline presses and running uphill while dragging a parachute. He's always been seen as a modern-day Brett Hull, a scoring savant rather than someone whose life revolves around the game. Still, it's shocking that he would paint such a vivid picture of nonchalance. Kessel's an amazing talent, one of the best pure snipers in the game. But he's also a guy who came into the league with expectations that he'd be a 50-goal man someday. Eight seasons in, he's yet to hit 40. No one's suggesting that he doesn't work, but he is fueling that perception. And it's a problem, especially with so much on the line in Toronto, where a new front office regime is trying to get the team on track after years of mediocrity.
When the goals inevitably dry up at some point this season—remember when Kessel scored only three in Toronto's final 16 games while the Leafs coughed up their grip on a playoff spot?—are you going to think, “Hey, he's just not getting the bounces?” Or will you think back to the guy who says he spends his summers playing poker and fishing?
Kessel's hardly alone. Ilya Bryzgalov told the Minnesota media over the weekend that he hadn't been on the ice all summer ... with a caveat. He didn't have a contract and there were no guarantees he'd be back this season. He also says there are only two nets on any given rink and since Russian teams were worried about getting enough work for their own goaltenders it was tough for him to get ice time.
And then there's Alex Ovechkin. There was a time when no one seemed to be having more fun with hockey than Ovi. Now it seems like his focus is everywhere but the rink. It was another crazy summer for the Great 8. When he wasn't serving as a propaganda tool for Russia's intervention in Ukraine or playing the boy toy in music videos, he regularly appeared to be at the center of rollicking good times in Moscow and elsewhere.
Ovechkin wants to have fun being a celebrity? Enjoy a few pops with his buddies? More power to him. But the good times seem to be the whole story now. Ultimately, they create the perception of someone who is satisfied to coast on his considerable talent rather than push himself to be the best player he can be. It's just a bad look for a guy who faced considerable criticism for his efforts last season even though he led the league in goals for the fourth time, and whose team has continued to fall short of expectations. But summer, he explained to the Washington Post, is a time to relax and now he's "going back to work."
This doesn't help either: Russian Machine Never Breaks, the exhaustive fan blog dedicated to the Washington Capitals, ran some photos of Ovechkin struggling after a Barry Trotz workout that the site described as a death skate.
If you're a fan of the player, you might see that and think Ovechkin is really pushing himself in practice to impress his new coach. And maybe he was. Other Capitals were sucking wind, too. But this “death skate” is also the exact same drill that my kid's travel team runs (albeit with an age-appropriate time allowance). Maybe it really was a give-it-all effort from Ovi ... or maybe he just wasn't prepared. Fair or not, that's the perception he's opened himself up to.