Do the Flames Need Grit?



The title has become a common refrain in some corners of Flames fandom recently. I can see where the perception is coming from – many of the new additions up front aren’t of the bump and grind variety (Cervenka, Hudler, Baertschi). Flames don’t have a true heavyweight on the 4th line either (though Jackman is game) and the blueline features maybe one guy you would expect to hit the opposition with extreme prejudice – and Sarich may not even play for every game.

So glancing at the roster, it’s obvious why so many folks are agitating for some sandpaper. Unfortunately, I doubt this is truly an issue of importance for the club as they are currently constructed, if only because they have far more pressing concerns.

The Quest for Truculence

When Brian Burke took over the Toronto Maple Leafs, he famously growled at reporters that the club needed more "truculence", ie; bigger, tougher players so the team would be "harder to play against". Burke has since added (and, in some cases, deleted) guys like Colton Orr, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, David Steckel, Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong and Luke Schenn.

The focus on toughness didn’t make the Leafs any harder to play against when the pertinent measure is winning and losing games – last year they finished13th in the East (despite a red hot start from their big shooters) and were 26th in the league in terms shooting/possession metrics. They’re as far from competing as ever and many of the guys the team acquired to beef up the roster are now considered obvious errors to varying degrees (Orr, Komisarek, Armstrong, Schenn).

I wrote about this issue previously in the Asking the Right Questions series. To wit:

One area I think where the focus on player qualities over player outcomes can muddle things is in team building, specifically when it comes to player categorization, ie; "roles" on a club. For example, NHL teams primarily employ bigger, tougher players in their bottom six forward rotation, especially when it comes to the the 4th unit. This is often an area where folks stop asking pertinent questions (can this guy outplay his opponents? Does he drive goal differential?) are instead start focusing on particular qualities (is he big? Is he mean? Can he fight?)…

Again, this is not to say being big and tough is bad or that tough guys can’t be useful – instead, the issue is that being tough also doesn’t necessarily mean a player has any value. Being tough is merely a potential asset, a tool that has utility only insofar as it helps drive play, goals etc. If a guy is big and can hit but bleeds shots and goals against because he’s completely miserable at everything else, then he is a liability.

Meaning, the Flames should avoid looking for toughness as a stand-in for a player’s overall ability. Or, from another angle, adding toughness for the sake of toughness would either be useless or counter-productive for the Calgary Flames. 

The Real Needs

The club’s primary issue is its ability to drive play against other team’s big guns. Calgary’s top-6 has been increasingly snowed under by other top-6 opposition over the last few years. Only excellent-to-elite additions up front are going to move the needle in a meaningful way for the Flames. There are guys who could do that who also count grit as one of their primary assets (David Backes, for instance) but the relevant factor is that the puck moves the right direction when they’re on the ice.

The Flames roster isn’t particularly blessed with overt toughness. Feaster and company need to avoid the conventional temptation to fill that apparent need in Burkian fashion, however, since toughness in and of itself is neither sufficient nor necessary to improve the club.

Like the Leafs in 2008, Calgary’s challenge now is to get better players – whether they are tougher or not is a matter of style more than content.

      • Parallex

        That is 100% false. Even a terrible team can go 4-3 against a great team. 7 games (at most) is a painfully small sample size, and going 1 game over .500 isn’t really all that phenomenal anyways. The Flames went 3-2-1 against the Canucks this year – were the Flames really the better team?

        • Parallex

          Too bad we couldn’t beat teams with grit as perhaps we did stack up well against Vancouver. That would have been a possible 13 game sample. There is no such thing as a terrible team in today’s NHL playoffs. The best team wins the series. Going 4-3 over another very good team is an accomplishment. LA didn’t do worse that 4-2 this year. What were they? 16-4 or 16-5. That is roughly about a 130 point season roughly but this was in games against the very best only. Pretty phenomenal.

          • Parallex

            There’s no denying LA had a great (phenomenal!) playoffs, but it doesn’t change the fact that the best team doesn’t always win. Like someone said above, the best team *usually* wins, but like anything else, there is an element of luck involved, and it has the potential to decide a game, series, etc. Strange things can happen in small sizes (flipping a coin and getting heads 5 times in a row for instance).

            This discussion makes me think of this:

  • Parallex


    “If we had guys that were consistently banging into their top lines, maybe our 1st and 2nd line would be faring better from a statistical standpoint.”

    Doubt it. It’s not like Butter matched them against other teams bangers… Butter matched him against other teams top skill guys (in our end more often then not). I’d have really liked if he (Butter) had… I wager Iginla and Co. would have had a higher probability of scoring against those guys.

    “Even elite teams are looking for more grit”

    Yes, Elite teams do… because they’re already an elite team. The Flames are not an elite team they’re just another of the NHL’s middle class and thus can’t afford to do that. If we had the talent at the top of the roster to play in the 90th percentile… sure I’d add pure grit, but we don’t and thus can’t.

    “LA was not a tough team to play against this year until Sutter took over and fixed that 4rth line with size and meanness.”

    You’ll forgive me if I think it was because the Jolly Rancher is a better coach then GM, The Kings went out and got Jeff Carter, their stars started playing to their talent level, and Jonathon Quick played out of his mind.

    Also it’s kind of odd that you mention Ott… a guy that Dallas traded to acquire more skill in Roy. If that was such an effective use of roster space Dallas would have kept him. You have to have the proper amount of skill before pure grit becomes useful

    • MC Hockey

      We shall see how well the Roy for Ott deal works out for Dallas. Remember, Dallas has other guys who are playing with a great deal of grit too and had just completed a trade for a younger grit forward. Ott is over 30 now and his style takes a toll. Had Carter in my pool, didn’t do a lot for me. Watching guys like Nolan wear down Jersey’s defense which in turn took away their offense was a key. and, Dutter is a great coach. Knows how to put players in and demand they play their roles.

  • Parallex

    “The best team always wins a 7 game series.”

    7 games is a statistically insignificant sample size. The best team will usually win a seven games series but not always… seven games is so few that luck can still play a significant factor.

    • Parallex

      From an Andy Field based statistical analysis, maybe insignificant but remember the 90 plus games leading up to that series in which both teams are allowed to analyze the other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. That 7 games is the end of a long process. And, it is 2 consecutive years for the Canucks losing to a team built similarily. The Kings and Bruins were not lucky against Vancouver and LA was simply dominant the entire playoffs.

  • Parallex


    “The best team always wins a 7 game series.”

    really? Were the Flames a better team than the Detroit Redwings in 2004?

    yeah. didn’t think so.

    It’s interesting that you pick Dallas and Souray as examples in favour of your opinion. for one thing, it’s Iginla that gets Souray off his game, not the other way around. Second, Dallas was worse than Calgary last season.

    • Parallex

      Yes, we were better. We had more grit, better goaltending and won in 6. So, of course we were better. If Detroit had won the series, I would agree with you. Why would Iggy be trying to get a player like Souray off his game? Our top scorer versus a fringe defenseman? Their constant engagement after whistles with Souray punching him in the head and Iggy yapping tells me that Dallas is winning that trade off especially if they end up in the penalty box.

  • Parallex

    For anyone who thinks that the Flames D cannot play tough, watch this video. I have never seen a defenceman own another teams forward like this in one shift before. Its awesomeness is never to be replicated.

  • Parallex

    Gio and Dustin Brown are not the biggest guys in the league but they both have skill and grit a person would want in every player on your team watching brown and Gio play against each other I cringe everytime each one hits each other but yet they are good at everything else

  • RKD

    They need a mixture of grit and skill. I look at teams like L.A. and the Ducks back in ’07. Big powerful forwards who can knock the other players off the puck. I think Burke wanted the same truculence his Ducks had, however the players he added in Toronto were nowhere nearly as skilled.

    I see Feaster’s team as going the smaller, faster, more skilled route. This team badly needs speed and skill. However, my fear is they could follow Montreal who completely changed over to smaller, more skilled players and while it worked two seasons ago they finished dead last in the East last season.

    So what did Bergevin do? He went back to adding size and grit with Prust, Moen, and Armstrong.

    The Flames don’t have the toughness they used to, teams feared coming to the dome. The Flames have lacked an identity for years.

  • Parallex


    “Actually, if you leave a Flames friendly site, you will see that we are actually the laughingstock of the league. Matt Martin may have had the 3rd worst Corsi on the Islanders but as I stated above, the payoff is often the easier trail for your top guys that he has created. It will not show up in his personal stats. Ott rarely was a star statistically versus the Flames either but he allows for other players to be.”

    The laughing stock of the league is Columbus, not Calgary. And if Martin made it easier for the guys on other lines, I’d hate to see what the Isles would have looked like without him. The Fact is Martin is pretty well nothing be a hired goon. And more skilled players probably make him look like an ECHLer. He adds NOTHING to that team, he got 14 points, but thats pretty well replacement level, was third worst on corsi and a -17.

    If you want GRIT, a player like Dustin Brown or Clutterbuck is good to go after, they can actually play hockey above a replacement level player. The Goddards, Mcintyres and more are a dying breed. With the change in rules after the lock out, if you can’t skate and all you try to do is hit, you are doing your team a disservice.

  • RKD

    I want the two points at the end of the day just like everyone else but there’s something to be said for playing a more itimidating brand of hockey… you have to remember your audience as well, this is western Canada and I think people expect a bit of “the rough stuff” every now and again. I agree that the old school enforcers are all but obsolete but guys that can skate and throw some big hits and occasionally get under the skin of their opponents are all good with me… Clutterbuck, Ott, Prust etc.. Marchand and Bolland are two of my favourites. Being a Flames fan and living in BC I despise the Canucks more than I can ever put into words and those two players get under the Nucks skin like nobodies business. Again I’m all for being fast and skilled but there’s nothing wrong with nasty and mean at the same time (if at all possible)

  • RexLibris

    @Rain Dogs

    They also need some way of evaluating those points to determine if they really do have any of those things or how far away they might be.

    It is likely that some in the organization still feel that Iginla is the best captain, the best forward, and the best scorer whereas a dispassionate review might prove otherwise.

    While the pursuit of excellence in those areas is laudable, and ought to be within the range of an organization’s stated goals, the ability to actually affect those statements is often a very different matter.

    Feaster and King may speak about the Flames leading in the area of statistical analytics, or strategic player evaluation, and so forth, but unless it can be effectively compared those words sound just like so many other management boasts.

    • BobB

      Sure, I agree with you, but having that goal as an organization will dictate who you choose in the draft, who you trade for and who you deal. If you want skilled, competitive and gritty players then you draft, trade for and sign those players.

      Forwards on the Flames who are NOT skilled AND Gritty:

      Mikael Backlund
      Alex Tanguay
      Matt Stajan
      Jiri Hudler

      Defenseman with no skill:
      Cory Sarich

      Three of those names are new contracts this year. Wisebroad sounds like a guy who is doing this with “hate to lose” subjectiveness. Whatever that is. Our draft pick was said to be so soft that scouts think he’ll never make the NHL, and we traded down for him.

      The Boston Bruins are a team that is built top to bottom with Skill and Grit. Difficult? sure.

      But we’re talking about skill VS grit aren’t we? This OR That. The story of Calgary. Now it’s all skill. With Darryl … all grit. That’s how it can often be presented without a good vision/definition/metrics. This or that. Sell short, can’t have both.

      • BobB

        by a lot of people’s definition of “gritty” I think Backlund actually fits the category. In his last game of the season, his shoulder got dislocated on a hit from Alex Edler. He went to the bench, had it popped back in, and went back out on the ice. I believe he missed exactly 1 shift. Later, when Alberts decapitated Comeau, Backlund stood up for him.. and for his trouble, Alberts lost his mind, tossed his gloves, and started pounding him. Backlund’s shoulder popped out of it’s socket for the second time in about 30 minutes, and he missed the rest of the season. None of that says soft to me. Injury prone maybe. But soft isn’t in it.

  • RKD


    There audience is Western Canada, and yeah, the audience out here probablye enjoys a bit more of a rough game, but winning sells each and every time and I’d rather a skilled player than some ‘tough’ guy.

  • zachg

    first of all,i would like to comment on all the years of cgy not having skill. we’ll we have added skill guys and now we ask do we need grit? like cmon, if its not one its the other we have glencross,iginla,comeau and jackman, a guy per line. If u want to rack the stats vs iggy go ahead, i would like to find a player that says iggy is soft or easy to play against… i cant see it. Second, new coaching staff, Nobody really knows or remembers how Hartly coaches, has he changed who knows. To me hartly and feaster have communication, i doubt they would be targeting these guys if they wont fit in the new coaches system, so im guessing offence then defence. IM not thrilled with the line up, but we also have a lot of unknowns which is awsome. cervenka, hudler backlund, baertchi, wideman,cammy and coaching. So tell you the truth feaster keep up the work make a trade to drop dead weight and lets GO FLAMESSSSSS

    • “IM not thrilled with the line up, but we also have a lot of unknowns which is awesome.”

      This is an incredibly foolhardy statement and sums up why the flames are headed for the basement in the quickly approaching future. Unknowns are definitely not what a team needs; have a look up the QE2 and you’ll see what unknowns get you. I typically don’t like to wallow in others’ misfortune but watching some of you donkey flame fans fool yourselves into thinking Feaster is doing a bang up job just tickles me orange and blue. Good luck!!! You’re going to need it!

      Edit: Looking up here and seeing what has happened doesn’t refer to the world class talent the Oil have acquired but the years of suckage fans have endured up to this point. The Oil will, in short order, be passing you in the standings;)