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Jeff Petry and the meaning of sacrifice

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What smart hockey coaches and managers can learn from what they tell their own players

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness. -Napoleon Hill

It's the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back. - Joe Paterno

Sacrifice is the key to success. Any player who makes a living out of playing a game can tell you that. You lift heavier, run faster, and skate harder in the off-season to be ready for training camp. During the season, you fight through traffic and go to the net for garbage goals. In the playoffs, you shrug off painful, sometimes life-threatening injuries just to go on the ice and change the course of a game.

Borrowing against one's immediate well-being for the good of the team is something every great athlete worth his/her salt has done at least once. The same can be said about great organizations.

Finding what you can live without

In Moneyball, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and his associates were able to build a winning baseball team on the cheap with the help of analytics. For me, the biggest takeaway from that story is not that numbers and computer spreadsheets can and should replace expert judgment, but that many coaches and managers don't understand the concept of sacrifice when trying to assemble a team.

Billy Beane. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Oakland miracle would not have occurred had Beane and Co. just gone out and tried to get the best players - they didn't have the money for that, and MLB players as a group hated Oakland. Instead, they began by figuring out what sacrifices they could make - what they could live without. Analytics helped them identify those areas and refine their search for cheap talent, but it's the initial idea which mattered most.

In their quest for value, the A's decided they could live with 1) fielders who couldn't play defense (Jeremy Giambi and Scott Hatteberg), 2) pitchers who looked like they can't throw (Jim Mecir and Chad Bradford) and 3) hitters who were old or fat (David Justice and Jeremy Brown). The fact that these players drove results was secondary. They only got to the A's because other teams weren't willing to make that sacrifice.

Trading off in the NHL

Before the NHL's salary cap era, the easiest trade-off in the world to make (if you had a rich owner) was to choose to live without a roster that was cheap - as evidenced by the very successful 1996-2004 Detroit Red Wings and the somewhat less successful New York Rangers of the same era.

Now, however, freely throwing money at players is no longer an advisable course of action. Every team is looking to get younger and cheaper while attempting to get better.

The Chicago Blackhawks decided to no longer spend on size and won last year's Stanley Cup as one of the smallest teams in the league.

The Dallas Stars chose to trade defense for offense and missed the playoffs in 2015. They've now doubled down on goaltending by giving starters money to both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi (which may or may not be a good idea).

The Tampa Bay Lightning have stopped giving money to highly-touted Canadian free agents (we'll see if they trade Stamkos - they can certainly live well without him). And so on.

When sacrifice pays

By signing Jeff Petry to a long-term deal this summer, the Habs gave up on financial flexibility to secure a very good hockey player. As an NHL forward, you'll rarely fear for your physical well-being when going into the corner with Petry - he's a clean, sensible player on the ice and a heckuva nice guy off the ice, which is perhaps why the Edmonton fanbase (as a whole) never really liked him.

But if you're okay with having a team that isn't "hard to play against" in the crudest sense and can tolerate a shutdown defenseman who does his job without crushing opposing players into the boards 10 times a game, then you'll get more than you paid for with Petry and others like him.

Smart teams sacrifice with a purpose, and they do it with the knowledge that they are actually gaining an edge by making that trade-off.

Historically at McGill, our coaching staff has often passed on highly skilled players who were highly interested in playing for the Martlets, but who do not have the grades to get into the school and stay academically eligible. On the one hand, our talent level is not as high as it could be. But on the other hand, we've been able to make place for many other players who are disciplined, hard-working and good students of the game.

Perhaps that's our edge.

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.