Effort is a funny thing in sports.
One of the cardinal sins an athlete can commit is not trying hard enough. Players get labeled as floaters or as lazy or as simply not caring enough about the team's success. And the effects on the game are obvious. If someone doesn't care enough to backcheck, then the team's entire defensive scheme falls apart.
But too much effort can be equally problematic. Players who try to do too much often leave their own responsibilities unchecked and can create as many holes as they would if they weren't trying at all.
The Dallas Stars have waffled between both sides of the effort line recently without managing to walk that tightrope.
In games like the shootout win over the Minnesota Wild, the team effort was obviously lacking, and the Stars only escaped with two points because of some stellar goaltending. But in the 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the Stars spent the first 20 minutes trying way, way too hard to make great plays, and the Red Wings spent most of the time walking around a player who went flying past them.
It seems counter-intuitive that the Stars actually need to take a step back from some of the efforts they've thrown out there the past few games, especially because points are at an absolute premium if they want to stay in the playoff race. But that old cliche of "try smarter, not harder" is something the team needs to embrace as they continue through this critical stretch.
More on how trying too hard causes all sorts of problems in the short and long term and what the Stars can do about it after the jump.
One of the more memorable images from my old "Nothing Else Matters" VHS tape is Daryl Sydor on the bench during Game 5 against the Colorado Avalanche motioning his teammates to calm down. The Stars were simply trying to do too much in what ended up being a 7-5 win for the Avs, and it became a pretty viscous cycle for that team, much like it has for the 2012 model the past several games.
It's obvious how a lack of effort causes problems for hockey teams. If a player is too lazy to get into or stay in position, then it obviously opens up all sorts of holes for the defense. Trying too hard, or trying to do too much, does much the same thing in a different way.
Defenses, and to a lesser extent offenses, are designed around each player doing his role. In a really, really simplified version of a matchup zone-style hockey defense, assuming the puck is down low, the wingers are responsible for covering the point men, one defenseman covers the front of the net and the guy closest to it, one defenseman pressures the puck carrier down low and the center keeps an eye on the high slot and whichever opposing forward is not watched by his defensemen.
That works great as long as everybody covers their area and their player. But when a guy really, really wants to make something happen, there's a tendency to try and do too much. One of the wingers, for instance, might try to double team the puck carrier to try and force a turnover and quick transition play up the ice. But smart offenses, and the Red Wings are among the smartest, will realize that by trying to do too much, he's not doing his job of covering his point man and find that open player.
Like I said, that's super-simplified version of hockey tactics and worthy of my beer league where only about 3/4 of the players can stop. But the idea of trying to "help" actually causing a hole in the defense is the main point.
And it works that way all over the ice, not just in the defensive zone. A player trying to force a pass in the offensive zone can cause a turnover. A player unwisely jumping up to try and keep a play alive can lead to an odd-man rush against. All of these plays are well-intentioned and created through guys giving some extra effort, but the result ends up hurting their team.
Even on the offensive end it holds merit. Instead of just throwing a puck at the net (though oftentimes, I understand the decision to hold off for a moment because of legs in the way), the player moves and passes and passed and moves and spends all the zone time looking for the perfect shot. This works sometimes, especially if you're a technology savvy Russian who chain smokes between periods. But for most situations and most players, the best option is the simplest.
All of the things mentioned above are also risk-reward plays, and they are a necessary part of creating offense. But there are times and places and players to try them against. The Stars were trying to make those high risk-high reward plays throughout the first 20 minutes against the Wings and even on the game-winning goal from the Los Angeles Kings. They need to take a breath and only make them at smart times.
The secondary problem that arises from too many risk-reward plays, especially those attempted at poor times, is it leads to further breakdowns of the system.
Like I said above, all defenses are developed around each player doing his role, and each player has to trust that his teammate can take care of his responsibility. It's an idea that translates throughout sports - football coaches love to talk about how their players need to play "assignment football," or do their job and only their job, not try to help out with another player's man.
But when a player makes a risk-reward play at an inopportune time, he is letting go of his main assignment, and his teammates recognize this. This often leads to a teammate cheating towards the original player's assignment, and now two guys are out of position. Then the third guy tries to "help," and so on and so forth. Smart offenses just pick that apart. And because guys are so out of position, sometimes it reads to viewers as a lazy player or two, but it's often guys just cheating to try to cover their assignment and someone else's because they don't trust, consciously or not, that their teammate will get his job done.
The combination of the two issues has been a huge problem for the Stars, particularly when they get into games against teams with top-end offensive talent.
Now, some degree of risk-reward play is obviously necessary. Jamie Benn has scored any number of highlight reel goals where he stepped up on a defenseman and stripped the puck, going the other way on an odd-man rush. And the coaching staff, especially on a team that's been starved for offense recently, can't completely muzzle guys like Benn and Mike Ribeiro, who make a living off that type of play.
So what to do then? Well you have to ask those players to be smart and the rest of your team to be smarter, essentially. Your high-end offensive talent has to pick and choose the places where they try and make a spectacular play. They have to communicate well with their teammates about who might be rotating to cover them, and they have to make sure they don't cross the line into silly, dumb penalties, like Benn's goalie interference penalty from Tuesday.
And the coaching staff has to emphasize to the rest of the team to play their roles, to do their job and only their job. Instead of compounding the first decision by abandoning your own assignment, make a smart decision and take away the most dangerous options. Buy time until the beaten teammate can get back. And communicate with everyone else on the ice if the entire group needs to rotate.
That all is, obviously, easier said than done, especially given how desperate the team is for points at the moment. And issues with over-trying tend to snowball until the next long stoppage, whether that's a timeout or the end of the period. But it's something this team has to address, and it's something that's been a problem for several seasons now.
It's a very narrow tightrope to walk between making all the right hustle plays and trying too hard. But this team needs to stop trying to win games on every single play, take a breath and find the fine line between desperate and self-destructive.