The Tampa Bay Lightning's Tocchet, Lecavalier, St. Louis and playing "gritty"

"When we start to lose focus and we lose our grittiness, you can tell we’re a different hockey club, we’re in trouble as a hockey club. But when we’re focused and got a little bit of grit to us, we can compete....

"You’re looking for your leaders, and you’re looking for the new guys to get this trip on the right (foot)."

-Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet,

Lightning Strikes blog / St. Petersburg Times, 1 November 2009

Rick Tocchet has made no secret of the kind of team he wants. He wants the team to play the style of hockey that he did when he played in the NHL, which was a hard-hitting, gritty, and blue collar kind of game with a lot of heart. And for the most part, they do – mostly because the majority of the team tends to play that kind of game themselves.

However, there are two players for the Lightning that simply do not fit into that mold. One is Antero Niittymaki. Don’t think the position of goaltender is exempt - even Mike Smith has some feistiness to him. Which is probably why Tocchet only grudgingly gave the starting job to Niittymaki. At least, for now. The official line is that Smith and Nittymaki will be splitting time.

The other player who does not fit Tocchet’s ideal hockey style is Vincent Lecavalier. Lecavalier is not an overly physical player. He can be, certainly, but that’s simply not his game, and it never has been. He’s a finesse player – it's all about setting up the pretty passes and pretty goals. He’s never been the type of centerman who will camp out in the crease taking all kinds of abuse just to tip in a goal. He’s always working the outside where there’s far less traffic to set things up. And there's nothing wrong with that - he gets the job done and that's what matters.

Vinny is playing how Vinny has always played. He’s not currently scoring many goals – it took him nine games to score his first goal of the season. That is unusual for him, but that’s how the puck bounces during some stretches of the season. And this has become a problem for Tocchet:

"Not finishing checks, cheating a little bit, the little things that I will not let…It’s unacceptable," Tocchet said. "That’s the one thing I came into this year, if I see your game slipping – if you’re not scoring, I can live with it – but if you’re turning away from checks, and not battling down low defensively, if you’re constantly on the ice and teams are getting chances against you, videos don’t lie. This is something we’re going to correct the next day, it’s not going to be corrected next week. We’ve got to attack it."

-Lightning Strikes blog / St. Petersburg Times, 1 November 2009

However, on the flip side of things, Martin St. Louis hasn’t scored a goal in ten games. But, somehow, Tocchet doesn’t see any problem with that:

"Marty is one of those guys, he does so much more," Tocchet said. "If he goes nine games, at least he plays good defense. He's set up some guys on some big goals (Steven Stamkos' goal in Ottawa). He's a fireplug. he keeps going out there hard. It's the guys that when they don't score they shut down other parts of their game that you can't have. Marty doesn't really do that."

-Lightning Strikes blog / St. Petersburg Times, 7 November 2009

Now you can say that it’s the little things that each player does away from the puck that’s the difference. Marty forechecks a bit better than Vinny, but Vinny covers for the defense better than Marty. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and that’s how it should be. Each player is playing his game his way – doing the things that he does best – although, statistically, they’re really not all that different from each other overall at this point in the season:

2009 - Vincent Lecavalier 15 2 12 14 -5 8 0 0 0 0 57 3.5

2009 - Martin St. Louis 15 3 14 17 -3 0 2 0 0 0 49 6.1

I can’t quite bring myself to believe that Tocchet’s trying to force Vinny off the team, as some have started saying. (By the way, that's how rumors get started, people.) Tocchet’s not stupid, after all. Vinny’s still a scoring and playmaking asset, regardless of how he’s doing at the moment. And he’s also a marketing asset to the team as well.

Instead, I think that Tocchet is trying to force a round peg thru a square hole. That is, he’s trying to force Lecavalier to become the player Tocchet wants him to be in order to fit into Tocchet’s idealized style of hockey. He’s trying to make a grinder out of Vincent Lecavalier, and that’s just not going to work. Especially not with a veteran in his 11th season in the NHL.

You don’t try to remake Vinny into a grinder when he just can’t do that on a consistent basis. He has his moments, sure, but that’s not his game. You’d be turning an overall team asset into a disastrous on-ice liability. And that will cause his game to spiral into a morass of inconsistency topped with a severe lack of confidence. In which more criticism and more punishment will be called for, spiraling the entire situation out of control until he asks to be moved to another team.

A smart coach works with the natural abilities of his players, not trying to force them to wholly play a style that they aren’t physically or mentally able to. If you want the guy to score, let him play his game within the framework of the overall team style – don’t try to change him completely into something he's just not. Otherwise, you might as well start thinking about where you'd like to trade him.