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Labeled

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How do you like me now?

Being branded or labeled is a common phenomenon in sports, especially when it comes to athletes. Most of the time, these two words have a negative connotation. Most of the time, it’s not a good thing.

Most often, this type of behavior has a negative effect on players themselves but it does have an impact on the team and people running it. Think about it, you have a player who can have such a good credibility with his coach and the rest of the staff that they simply choose to ignore some of his bad performances. In this instance, eyes can truly see what’s been taught, corroborated by numerous prior examples of good games played by an individual. Based on this, some of his bad performances will be attributed to fatigue or simply bad luck. Hell, even he is allowed to have a bad day once in a while, right?

However, since winning is what it’s all about, let’s not dare to even think otherwise, even a player with good credibility runs out of time if he continues to perform poorly.

Similarly to the aforementioned phenomenon GMs and coaches can both “lose out” on a player simply because they adopt a “label a player” mindset and aren’t willing to change that mindset if a player is making an honest effort to prove them wrong. Certain players are simply lazy, not tough enough etc. There are instances where this is indeed true, but even when it’s just about utilizing that player in a different way or a case of mistaken identity lower quality performances by that player are almost uniformly attributed to his “lack of character” and good performances will almost always be followed by a “but”.

For God knows how long, we’ve been hearing about the brotherhood of GMs, as well as how much impact NHL reputations have and how fast they develop. It’s especially harmful to players if said culture indeed has this much pull in the industry – and it does. There are 30 NHL teams and just so many spots on rosters.

I’ve always viewed NHL hockey as a game in which hard work gets rewarded, not a gossip spreading environment. Both labels are extreme, I’m sure. It is definitely true we would most certainly trust a colleague we worked with or heard good things about more than somebody who’s constantly followed by rumors and uncertainty. Yes, it is true that reputations have to be earned but how hard it is to shake a preconceived notion in today’s NHL?

Alexander Semin and Joffrey Lupul immediately come to mind, two distinctly different cases.

As far as Semin is concerned, it’s clearly a case of “bad merchandise, stay away” which I think is wrong. As a counterpoint, I present the “there seems to be potential there, now how do I maximize that potential.” You know, innovative thinking.

Actually, if you look at Semin’s numbers, his stats prove it more than anyone likes to admit. Semin isn’t a brilliant playoff performer, but he isn’t exactly a slouch either. In 51 playoff games he scored 15 goals and has 34 points. He averaged 0.67 points-per-game in the playoffs. Close to say, Zach Parise, who has scored 21 goals and has 43 points in 61 games with a points-per-game at 0.70. More than say, Bobby Ryan, who (granted, in fewer games) has scored 8 goals and had 11 points in 19 games with a points-per-game at 0.58.

This is hardly conclusive, but you don’t hear people arguing that much over their playoff performance or the commitment to their respective teams. After all, they aren’t soft Russians unwilling to play defense.

Is he enigmatic? Yes. Does he speak a lot of English. No. He could, but he doesn’t, not to the press anyway.

From the Washington Post:

“Michal Neuvirth apparently had some choice words for teammates and former coach Dale Hunter during an interview with iSportz.cz. When he spoke about team captain Alex Ovechkin he said, “he isn’t what he used to be, that’s for sure” and “if a team like ours wants to have a chance in Stanley Cup, we need Ovi to be the best.” Neuvirth also questioned former Washington winger Alexander Semin’s work ethic and said he was glad that Hunter wouldn’t be around anymore. There’s probably going to be some damage control, which isn’t uncommon for translated interviews, but nothing he said went too far despite his candidness and he was largely complimentary of Ovechkin and Semin despite those remarks.”

Semin has a point to prove this season. He signed a one-year, $7-million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes and his first quotes in the new uniform don’t exactly inspire confidence:

“It will be hard for me because this is the first time in my career I have gone to another team,” Semin said. “It’s a new experience for me.”

However, if he can get back to the kind of level he showed from 2008-2010 (back when some people were wondering who’s the best Alexander on that team) he will most certainly prove his critics wrong, much like Joffrey Lupul.

Granted, Lupul’s case was indeed a case of legitimate concern. After all, the player had been in the process of recovering from a blood infection that immediately followed his back surgery during the 2009-10 season. He missed the final 59 games of that season and the first 28 games of the next season during his recovery. The road back was extremely long and many wondered would he ever be able to play competitive hockey again.

Injury and illness had taken a major toll on his body. So much so, that he went from 206 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame to 170.

“I could see it in the faces of people looking at me. They said I looked like Mr. Burns,” Lupul said, referring to “The Simpsons” character. “My back was all bent over. I was so skinny.”

And yet, Burke made a play to acquire Lupul and the player made the most of that opportunity. Let’s ignore the fact that you have to have tremendous resilience and character to fight your way back from that kind of injury setback, which the Ducks seemingly completely ignored (ironically, his current coach ignored it too) and say that Lupul never really got a shot with the Ducks simply because he was labeled as a former asset, a guy who could never be back to what he was.

But here he is. Not only is he back to his old self again, he is now an improved player. We’re seeing exactly what missing hockey and determination can mean to a player’s performance. Burke gambled and won. He didn’t do it because of Lupul’s reputation, or his familiarity with shipping Lupul away. He did it because of the circumstances, because he probably ignored everything surrounding Lupul up to that point. Burke believed reputations and labels can be remade. 67 points in 66 games later, we’re pretty much sure he got it right. Oh, remember when Dion Phaneuf was a cancer in the dressing room? Yeah, neither do we.

I'm Mislav, a Croat living in Zagreb. I love the Leafs and write hockey things. First wrote on Leafspace, then did some work on LeafsHQ for about a year and a half and have been a proud member of Maple Leafs Hot Stove ever since. Also wrote for the Hockey News (that one time was sweet!), have been covering Medvescak Zagreb for the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga and the KHL as part of KHL.hr. @Xterratu on Twitter.
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