The Hockey Gods Must Be Crazy: Jeff Carter, Puck Luck, and the Predator Way

Penner to Carter to Penner on the series winning-goal, the very goal the Nashville Predators couldn’t score, against the goaltender they couldn’t beat.

Watching the Kings’ Game 7 Golden Goal, I remembered conversations about the two players involved, the prospect of their acquisition by the Predators this season, and a common conclusion from those knowledgeable of the team: never.

And now two players who the Predators would never acquire achieved a success Nashville had never known. Coincidence?

Barry Trotz invokes the “hockey gods” in his post-game press conferences so much, you’d think he actually believes in them. Perhaps it’s a function of his being so even-keeled. I’d bet you could compare some audio, sans context, from the post-game press conferences of Nashville’s worst losses versus their best victories and have a hard time telling the difference by the intonation of Trotz’s voice. He’s realistic about who played well, regardless of the score. And after parsing the process from the results, the “hockey gods” are his wink to chance’s role in the outcome.

Cognizant of the role bounces inevitably play in winning, however, Barry Trotz adopts the quixotic strategy of trying to eliminate the bounces altogether. The Predators organization is, fundamentally, an exercise in reducing variables. They call it “The Predator Way” — a sly naming convention used by a range of organizations to intimate that there’s a wrong way and there’s their way. It represents their quest to have the most committed players on the ice, in the locker room, and in the community.

In a way, it’s a safety net — an assurance that no matter what happens during the season, they’ll be able to point to what a great group of guys they have. But it also betrays an organizational belief that, if you do enough “right” things, fate will eventually smile upon you.

Jeff Carter KingsJeff Carter could never be a Predator because he’s a supposed bad teammate — a guy who pouted his way out of Columbus. To Nashville, he represents a potentially disruptive force to the clubhouse chemistry they’ve painstakingly crafted.

Dustin Penner could never be a Predator because stacks of delicious pancakes, and the accordant questions about his work-ethic and desire. The Predator Way doesn’t tolerate a player showing up to camp out of shape and scoring 17 regular season points.

Carter and Penner, however, and their golden goal in particular, represent everything missing from the Predators’ game. Penner used his big body to gain the zone; Carter used his quick shot to create a rebound, and Mike Richards and Penner crashed the net.  It’s a stark contrast to a Predators team that tried to beat Mike Smith with dump-ins, followed by surgically-precise passes and shots.

Number 77 on the Kings even reminds me of erstwhile Predators captain Jason Arnott — the big frame with the casual skating style, the goals, and the totally nonplussed goal celebrations. Nashville jettisoned Arnott due of his lack of A1 Leadership and his unwillingness to skate in the perfect oval of the team’s forecheck/backcheck.

But “Arnie” got results. Like Carter, he took a lot of shots, he found quiet areas, and he put the biscuit in the basket. And despite his perceived laziness, fancy stats suggest he was not a defensive liability — or, at the very least, the good outweighed the bad.

The Preds, though not oblivious to his contributions, disliked the process of Arnott’s game. They wanted a team of players totally committed to the backcheck and hustle. To what end, though? To achieve a system content to dump the puck in the offensive zone, cede possession, and wait for the opponent to make a mistake. And such a system, which so readily eschews puck possession, may not seem like an exercise in control, but it’s exactly that. Run-and-gun offenses create more chances, but they leave you open to counter-attack, odd-man rushes. Dumping the puck in lets everyone get in perfect 1-2-2 position.

The move to trade Arnott two offseason ago — like the non-acquisition of Jeff Carter — was all about Trotz tightening his grip on his locker room and his team’s defensive positioning.

“He got his three goals and that was enough.”

Barry Trotz said that after a 6-5 win over the Blue Jackets, in which Jeff Carter potted an early hat trick to put the Preds down 4-1. Local media lauded this quotation as genius and revelatory of the difference between Jeff Carter’s brand of hockey and Nashville’s. And it is. The comparison’s just not the positive one they thought it to be.

Just consider for a minute how insane that quote is.

Pekka RinneImagine if the Predators swapped Pekka Rinne for Steve Mason. Would Barry Trotz have a little different perspective on three goals not being enough, then?

Yes, I understand your counter-argument. Trotz was merely pointing out that, even during his best games, Carter’s efforts flagged. But to take this position is to commit the same fallacy that damns the Predators every year: the mistaken idea that the objective of hockey is to be the Platonic ideal of Don Cherry’s Good Canadian Boy, not to score goals.

By committing to Hockey The Right Way in such an extreme way, Nashville reduces the game to a ritualistic performance. They do all these things that seem like the right thing to do, without serious consideration of whether it’s helping them win games.

Fans and pundits from around the league routinely laud the Predators for doing things the right way, and yet don’t act surprised when Nashville’s quickly dispatched in the postseason. They talk about watching the Predators games like a nice piece of performance art, a tribute to a bygone era of hockey. But as both Finals participants last year showed, likability has little to do with winning.

The Predators are so obsessed with their pride, they’ve conflated it with success. And in the face of random variation’s role in hockey — those cruel whims of the hockey gods — Barry Trotz molds his team as a sacrifice to their divine wisdom: a group of humble, close-knit, hard-working guys, forgoing skill to grind it out.

Except there are no hockey gods. The universe is indifferent. The puck is an agent of agent of chance, not an arbiter of justice.

And in the cold and random world in which bad things happen to good players, the only rational response is increasing your opportunities to bask in the light of favorable puck luck.

The Coyotes failed to make it out of the West because their whole game is predicated on fail-safes — collapsing around either net to affect chance quality.

The Predators failed because they tried to tighten their control on the entire game — play perfect man-to-man defense and counter with some well-orchestrated scoring chances.

The Kings succeed because they embrace hockey’s expansive nature. When you tighten your grip on a game played on a low-friction surface, pucks will necessarily slip through your fingers. Jeff Carter is an agent of chaos — a constant flurry of shots. And his shots breed rebound chances, flopping goalies, and opponent panic. Golden goals.

In the eyes of some, Dustin Penner and Jeff Carter did everything wrong this year, and now might reap hockey’s ultimate reward. Maybe, though, we need a new idea of right and wrong, one focused on what wins hockey games. The Stanley Cup is not housed on ‘Dry Island’, nor its metal compromised by bad clubhouse chemistry.

Is it just, though?

Just doesn’t enter into it.

One Comment

  1. Trotz is a fine coach and has had a lot of success on a shoestring budget. There will always be differences of opinion on how a team should be run. And every year, most of the fans of the 29 teams that DON’T win the cup want to blame someone, and the coach and GM are easy targets. Give it a rest. We’re lucky to have Poile and Trotz.

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