When Pete DeBoer was first hired a common term he would use in talking about his new team was “identity.” He said it in a number of ways but the refrain was always the same, that the team had a great identity and when they played with it they were almost unbeatable, but recently it had been lost and they were playing without it.
Here’s one example from five days after he was hired.
I think for me just playing aggressive, and dictating games and wearing teams down with our depth because we have the ability to roll four lines and be really hard to play against. I think we want to get back to that. Not that that slipped totally off the table but that’s something this team did better than anybody in the league for a long time and we want to try and get that type of identity back. -DeBoer on 1/20/20
I have to admit, it’s a term that’s always troubled me. Identity. I don’t even really know what it means. Everyone uses it, heck I’ve even used it, but if you pinned me down to explain exactly how it relates to a hockey team, I can’t do it. So to hear it over and over again from the new head coach as basically the primary focus on how to solve the issues the Golden Knights had been having, I couldn’t help but tilt my head the way Wiglaf and Rupert do when I ask them if they want a piece of cheese.
What is the Golden Knights identity? What’s it supposed to be? Has it changed?
I’ve spent the last three weeks pondering all of this and finally had a chance to ask a few players, and the coach, specifically about it. Take a listen to it all, in its raw form. First is Jonathan Marchessault, then Nate Schmidt, Paul Stastny, and it ends with Pete DeBoer.
I’ve listened to each of those four interviews about 10 teams apiece and I still have no clue how to define the Golden Knights identity.
It’s just a bunch of buzzwords that apply to every hockey team.
Relentless. Heavy. Fast. Aggressive. Play as a unit. Hard to play against.
Put that aside for a second though, I’ll get back to it.
However anyone defines it, it seems to have shifted. Well, sorta shifted. Actually, no it hasn’t shifted at all. It’s exactly the same, it just looks a little different because this team is more skilled, or to use a simpler term, better.
But it’s not. Or at least it hasn’t been when counting wins.
Both teams have the ability to check off all the buzzwords. The makeup of the team really isn’t that different aside from adding a new buzzword, “heavy,” which really just means “we have Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty now.”
So why aren’t they playing the same way? Why are they going through all these problems? Why was the identity lost in the middle of the third season?
The answer is, no one knows exactly, even though everybody does know in theory, they just don’t want to admit it.
Everyone wants the magic of Year 1 back. The players want it back. The old coach wanted it back. The new coach wants it back. The front office wants it back. The owner wants it back. And you, the fans, want it back.
But it’s not coming back and when you get a moment of truth from anyone involved they’ll tell you it’s not coming back.
We got one from Nate Schmidt in the middle of those interviews.
It’s always the unknown that screws you up. -Schmidt
He’s acknowledging that the first year Vegas was an unknown. The city, the surroundings, the arena, the team itself, no one knew what to expect and it screwed them up.
When’s the last time you heard someone say “Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party out there?” For those who don’t remember, that’s an Alex Ovechkin quote from January of 2018, and while it was certainly the most colorful of the bunch, we heard stuff like it every single night.
That’s not coming back. Ever.
But that doesn’t mean the Golden Knights can’t put a good team on the ice or that they’ll never repeat the success they had that season. No one else has ever had a season like that and yet someone else has won the Stanley Cup every single year.
Back to the identity thing. They do need to be relentless, heavy, fast, aggressive, and hard to play against. Of course, every team does, and they have been at different times this year.
I don’t know, it’s probably the same identity as every team. -Stastny
But because the roster is better than most of the other teams in the league, I think what everyone is trying to say is simple. Everyone just needs to not suck.
Forwards, don’t suck. Defensemen, don’t suck. Goalies, really don’t suck.
That’s this team’s “identity.” (I think. I still don’t really understand the word.)
If everyone plays like they are capable of playing, no one even needs to go above and beyond, and this team will win. If a few guys suck, they’ll lose.
Marchessault said it when he said, “we were just unsuccessful.” Schmidt said it when I asked “if you play like you should are you going to win” and he instantly responded “yes.” Stastny said it when he said, “everyone pulling on the same rope.” And DeBoer said it when he said, “have that identity with this type of skill.”
Even without the element of surprise, the identity of this team is one that thinks they can win and win big. The coach believes it, the players believe it and the front office has gone to great measures to prove they “feel” it too.
They just need to do it and do it when it matters. Otherwise, the identity will be golfing, and nobody wants that.