Legend has it that when a 20-year-old Chris Pronger showed up to training camp in worse shape than 43 of his 45 (mostly older) teammates, an exasperated St. Louis Blues coach/GM Mike Keenan fumed, "Are you crazy? Do you know who I traded for you?"
(If that's before your time, Keenan acquired him for an in-his-prime Brendan Shanahan, long before Shanny became league discipline czar.)
It was just training camp, so Keenan didn't yet have the age-old weapon coaches resort to when sending a message to players young and old: Healthy scratches.
They send warnings to veterans that retirement is near, and they send wake up calls to rookies that nothing in this league is free. In theory, a coach prepares for every game with three "healthy" scratches on the 23-man roster at his disposal, but the reality of injuries means that's not always so. There's not a message to be sent every night. (And if a team's carrying an enforcer, that "message" is purely tactical.)
Hall of Famer Mike Modano was scratched in Detroit at the end of his career. Fellow Hall member Dale Hawerchuk was scratched as early as age 32 with his parents in the stands (by Keenan, naturally). And Devils legend Ken Daneyko spent his dwindling playing days in the pressbox watching Oleg Tverdosky take his place.
But that's the uncomfortable veterans end of the spectrum. The other end is where players like the young Pronger fail to realize the potential so many others see in them, so coaches at wit's end try to shock their system.
P.K. Subban received that treatment last season for "an accumulation of things," according to disciplined Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Martin. Buffalo Sabres phenom Tyler Myers tasted that this season, getting scratched by coach Lindy Ruff for a meeting with the division rival Canadiens earlier this month.
Just Monday night in Washington, Alex Semin was a healthy scratch, one game after being demoted to the fourth line. He's seen his ice time fall, his scoring output fall and his penalty minutes skyrocket so far this season, and even with the Caps' win over Phoenix Monday, the heat is still on.
In Columbus, Derick Brassard, a survivor of the Blue Jackets summer renovations, is mired in a string of scratches that have many wondering what's next. On Long Island, a goalless Kyle Okposo was scratched for three consecutive games this month -- this after signing a five-year contract extension over the summer. Brassard and Okposo are the 6th and 7th overall picks from the 2006 NHL draft, so those lofty draft positions mean they're already at the age where coaches need them to define what kind of players they will be.
Is the healthy scratch the way to get that out of them?
It depends. In Semin's case, of course, we've yet to see. Subban has progressed in Martin's system and is considered a key to the Habs this year. Myers scored his first two goals after being scratched and generally impressed Ruff before succumbing to a wrist injury on Saturday.
In contrast, Okposo returned to the Islanders lineup Monday night and, despite discussing "a plan" with coach Jack Capuano, was largely invisible in the team's 5-0 loss to the Penguins in Sidney Crosby's return. Brassard returned for a game, then sat for two more games including last night's win over the Calgary Flames.
Often, as in Myers and Okposo's case, the scratch is a short-term risk -- sitting a player who is clearly one of the best 18 skaters on the roster -- in the hope of a bigger long-term gain. Of helping the player come closer to his potential -- and getting him to realize where he's falling short.
Some players will never get there.
And some players, like the once-infamous party fanatic Chris Pronger who Keenan scratched a couple of times, will go on to captain multiple NHL teams and get their name on the Stanley Cup.
To this day, Pronger says Keenan was a key part of his development, but shaking his party lifestyle and doubling down on fitness -- and growing up -- played a bigger role. Scratch or no scratch, the bulk of the matter is still in the player's hands.