It’s no secret that I’m personally not a fan of the “enforcer” in the modern NHL. As such, I consider the one-way contract handed out to Brian McGrattan to be Sutter’s lone misstep this off-season. Here, I’ll look at the various ways McGrattan’s presence may (or may not) effect the Flames –
There are a number of somewhat mythological explanations behind the heavyweight in hockey: most center around “nuclear deterrent”, or “policeman” – a guy who can “answer the bell” as it were. The just-in-case clause, the gun under the pillow. In earlier years, stars were protected by goons. Heck Gretzky actually skated with Semenko on his line sometimes. That doesn’t happen as frequently anymore and is a difficult effect to track anyhow: how does one prove a negative? By which I mean, how does one prove the level of agitation a star receives with an enforcer on his team is less than when he plays without one? The cause and effect chain is intuitive and assumed, but, from memory and observation (ie; from watching Eric Godard) it’s doesn’t seem to be real. Not today.
The video I posted above is pertinent, because it’s the ostensible reason Darryl Sutter signed McGrattan this off-season. Asked in an interview what McGrattan’s primary role would be, Sutter said something to the effect of “we don’t want anyone messing with our kids”. Let’s evaluate that claim:
1.) Does Sutter mean he assumes having a tough guy like McGrattan would dissuade a guy like MacIntyre from making the above type of hit entirely? Because, let’s face it, MacIntyre is in the NHL for two reasons: to hit anything he sees and to fight guys like McGrattan. The fact that the latter is inevitably going to follow the former isn’t going to stop MacIntyre or his ilk from running around and trying to create havok. They don’t have a job, otherwise.
2.) Does Sutter mean McGrattan will reduce those types of incidents by exacting a pound of flesh afterwards? Calgary’s tough guy last year was Andre Roy. He was half-way decent at hockey, but a fairly terrible enforcer. I don’t remember him winning a single bout. As such he was a poor deterrent (assuming the effect is real), or at least was perceived as one. Perhaps the assumption is – meaner tough guy, less crushing the small guys. Do we consider McGrattan’s signing a success if Boyd gets less beat up this year? How do we track that anyhow?
Of course, the true effect of having an enforcer on the bench may be psychological: he’s assurance of quick and painful comeuppance for anyone who takes advantage or crosses the line. Perhaps it’s the final roster spot is worth the improved morale and intimidation factor?
The enforcer’s theoretical psychological boost has to outweigh a number of issues in order for McGrattan to be a net benefit to the Calgary Flames. First and most obvious amongst which is the fact that Brian isn’t really an NHL level hockey player in terms of the abilities we evaluate other players by: skating, passing, shooting, thinking, etc. The big guy has managed 2 goals and 10 points in 148 career games, for instance. On those rare occasions he’s actually in the line-up, he averages about 3 minutes of ice time. He’ll never kill penalties or score a goal on the power-play. In fact, it’s a good bet that McGrattan will render the Flames 4th line almost completely useless whenever he takes the ice.
This is significant for the Flames because they have a lot of fairly capable players around the roster’s edges who could conceivably provide value from the 4th unit. Potential 4th liners for Calgary this year include: Nystrom, Sjostrom, Prust, Boyd, Stuart, Lundmark, Greentree, Jaffray, Chucko and Backlund. Some of these guys will make the team and skate with McGrattan on occasion. Many will spend the year in Abbotsford, despite the fact they are unarguably superior hockey players.
There’s also a chance that a ‘tweener like Dustin Boyd – who is searching for defined role on the team – may end up a healthy scratch on evenings when the rest of the roster is full and the other team boasts a heavyweight of their own. That’s bad news developmentally for a player like Boyd who figures to a significant part of the Flames future, but is still trying to find his footing at the NHL level. His opportunities have been limited as a Calgary Flame thus far, and it will take more ice time with better players in better circumstances for him to take a step or two forward. Missing games so McGrattan can play 3 minutes is one of the worst potential side-effects of this acquisition: not only because it makes the team worse (in terms of skating, shooting, scoring) but because it stalls Boyd’s progression and sends the wrong message to the player.
The Flames have a lot of decent players on low-level contracts battling for a few roster spots at the bottom of the rotation. The team could conceivably audition of number of players in the 4th line RW role and either stick with the best guy or rotate capable prospects through in order to give them a taste of the pro game (and see how they respond). The fact that the position will have a placecard with McGrattan’s name and number on it hinder those functions – so here’s hoping the supposed benefits of employing him outweigh what look like obvious consequences.