This morning I had a Twitter exchange with a handful of folks from my usual tweet circle about the value of tough guys. In particular, @67sound was wondering why the mainstream media lauds them so much. His point was that as a linemate Brandon Prust is a “lead anchor” for the Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk trio (I’m assuming he’s using Corsi data for this) yet he’s heralded for “making room” for the two kids, and that this summer the media loved that the Sabres got Steve Ott and John Scott (though the team appears to have gotten worse), and that the Flames struggle because they don’t have a tough guy, and so on, and so on, and so on…
The mainstream media does love their heavies. They grew up in an era where enforcers logged real minutes and played alongside stars and won Stanley Cups. Obviously not all of the media grew up watching that, but you generally have to work your way up to get the best MSM jobs, so they generally aren’t the youngest guys. They’ve seen toughness take down talent before.
Still, the point I was trying to make in our discussion is that lumping guys like Steve Ott and Chris Neil and Brandon Prust in with the John Scotts is just wrong. There are tough guys, and there are guys that are tough to play, and there are guys that are tough to win against (skill guys). You always want elite talent, but nobody should argue that guys that are tough to play, even those that aren’t the most gifted, aren’t important pieces of a winning team. You need those guys.
As a guy whose role was to create offense (and also a guy who’s game could be more or less described as “soft”), here’s what I can tell you: I had no fear of heavyweights, I was useless against the “tough to play” variety, and the guys who are “tough to win against” hurt everybody, but they didn’t affect my ability to be at my best.
The explanation there is fairly simple: a heavyweight can’t fight me. Simply can’t. He would beat the blood out of me which would completely discredit him (yay for the code!), so he’s just out there looking for another heavy to fight. He might slash me once or something, but whatever, I’ll live. And in terms of actually playing against him, I know he’s at worst going to dump the puck in against my line, and at best be ragingly out of position and slow and I’ll get a scoring chance. I’m talking about your garden-variety thug, and I have no problem with people arguing that they’re basically pointless. The only time I’d consider adding one to my team (were I a GM) would be if my point-getters were utterly devoid of toughness and I thought having a nuclear option to be a decent back-up plan.
The guy who is “tough to win against” is someone like Phil Kessel (or any other one-dimensional high-octane skill guy), who is completely oblivious to the fact that there is another team on the ice except for the fact that they’re trying to stop him from scoring goals. He won’t put the body on you, and as long as you don’t let him get the puck, he’s also a treat to play. You can go where you want unencumbered, do what you want without worry, and the only thing you need to be wary of is bad turnovers. He can be frustrating to play (“man, headed back into our zone again”), he can help a team win games, and you like to have him in your group, but he doesn’t make life truly difficult for anyone but slow defensemen.
So then, teams need some sandpaper. You just can’t put yourself in a position where a team like the Bruins can give you The Punk Test, and you’re resigned to saying “maybe next game our tall guy should get beat up by one of them to stand up for us?” You’ll get owned from then out. Nor can you put yourself in a position where skill guys are thrilled to see your logo come up on their magnetic fridge schedule.
The “tough to play” guy makes life completely miserable for players like me. And for context “players like me” in the NHL are guys like Drew Stafford, Mason Raymond, Kyle Turris and so on. Guys who are good offensive players, but shut-downable. We’re your second line scorers, guys that aren’t going to be point-per-gamers, but if life is easy enough for us, we’ll put pucks in the net and kill your team. We hate playing Neil and Ott and Prust, because they make our life a living hell. They can make us recede into a shell. Which rhymes, and is therefore cool.
You know when you play them that you’re going to get chopped going to the net, you’re going to get hit after your pass, and you’re going to get chirped after the whistle. They make you man up, and while we often can, getting challenged consistently can wear us down to irrelevance. We’re not built to “rise up” to some physical altercation every goddamn shift. We love a more European style game. Hell, someone like Kyle Wellwood could be a premium scorer if it weren’t for guys who were tough to play. He’s a rec hockey god in wait.
The problem is, these tough guys who get over 10 minutes a night get lumped in with the thugs because they’re not afraid to drop the mitts when things get thick. Your average hockey fan doesn’t know how to separate Colton Orr from Chris Neil or Dan Carcillo or even Steve Downie. Steve Ott out-scored Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow and tied Jamie Benn (in less games) in 09-10, which doesn’t make him a skill guy. He just scores a different type goal that comes from a different type of game, and if you can find a guy with some semblance of skill to go with a willingness to punchisize many faces for free like that you generally fall over yourself to get it.
To me, those are the guys you want to fill out your roster with once you have your skill looked after (which is obviously priority 1A). You can’t – or at least shouldn’t – value toughness as a replacement for skill (as @67sound noted). Toughness, for most players, should be a compliment to skill, and vice versa. If you can get both in large quantities, ala Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara, well, you’re laughing. In my mind I have a picture of two meters, one with “skill” and one with “toughness,” and as you move one up, the other goes down. Being higher on the toughness bar doesn’t mean you’re some joke in the NHL. And, it’s a lot cheaper to fill holes in your roster with guys who are farther up that toughness bar, which is why there’s no shortage of jobs for these seemingly fearless guys. (And the skill guys are happy to have the heat taken off them.)
And that’s why “sandpaper” has a place in the game. Brandon Prust and his brethren may not be overly skilled, but plenty are skilled enough to play in the NHL, and shouldn’t be discounted as players of value. It may not show up in the gritty players’ numbers, but guys like that can be the reason softer players suddenly have bad numbers of their own. They’re mentally worn down, physically worn out, and sick of having to talk themselves into bucking up every time they hop the boards.