In the late 80s the New York Mets had an outfielder named Kevin McReynolds, a talented but quiet performer from Arkansas. In the fishbowl of the New York media, the beat writers were always looking for a good quote, but McReynolds was a man of few words. In August of 1991 the Mets (perennial contenders in the NL East from 1984-90) were on the verge of a collapse, desperately trying to stay with the Pittsburgh Pirates despite injuries and rumors of clubhouse unrest.
McReynolds was asked, "Do you guys have the chemistry to overcome the Pirates?", to which McReynolds replied, "I don't know, I'm not a chemist."
The Mets did fold down the stretch and did not have good chemistry. But there was much wisdom in McReynolds' curt, dismissive answer.
It's tough to teach chemistry. Often good chemistry either happens, or it doesn't, though certainly it's an important element to any team. Think back to any team you may have played for at any level, and you can probably recall teams that had a cohesiveness that couldn't be explained and some that had lots of talent but just couldn't seem to get it together and reach its potential. The same dynamic is true in work environments and relationships as well.
The fact that it's hard to explain or teach doesn't stop coaches from searching for that right formula. They know there is value in chemistry, even though it's impossible to quantify (Sidebar: the growing world of "stat geeks" in sports often scoff at the "value" of a "good locker room guy" because they can't equate it with a stat. Grudgingly, they concede it exists though).
Such is the challenge for new Nashville Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette and his staff as they get set to open the season. Chemistry, particularly among the forward lines, has been a recurring theme of the daily discussions with the media at the end of each training camp session.
If you list the Predators forwards on paper individually, there is some solid talent when comparing to past groups. Take a decent past season (not even a career best) from newcomers like Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen and James Neal, and it looks pretty impressive. Added to what returns from last season, and the lineup – individually – looks potentially stronger (at forward) than past Nashville playoff teams (2004, 2008, and even 2010 come to mind).
But how do these pieces fit together? That is the question.
Laviolette has looked at a number of combinations. Is Gabriel Bourque the right guy to play with Ribeiro and Neal? Do Craig Smith and Derek Roy fit together? What is the best role for young Filip Forsberg? Who is best suited to play the net-front position on the power play?
Beyond these questions, there are the intangibles. Often a locker room, regardless of the sport, will have a sign posted that has some version of a team building type message. Whether it's something short like "All In" or something more detailed, like "It's Amazing What Can Be Accomplished If No One Cares Who Gets The Credit." So what kind of locker room will it be? Do the new guys get along with the players that have been here? Do they believe in each other? Do they buy into the system?
This is what makes Laviolette's job challenging.
But it's that challenge that all coaches relish – even those who are not actual "chemists" (for the record I do not know how Laviolette graded out in chemistry in high school). Laviolette will do what he can to create an environment that leads to good chemistry. But there is only so much that he controls. Every team is unique. Sometimes it just happens – and sometimes it doesn't.
In hockey, history shows that a team that is more than the sum of its parts can do great things. We'll see if the revamped Predators with their new coach can do just that.