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

    Right now I’d rather have skilled players then gritty players up and down the line-up. Of course in an ideal world you’d like to have guys that are both but we do not live in an ideal world.

    Skilled 3rd and 4th lines that can outplay other 3rd and 4th lines will lead to more oppo penalties, more oppo icings, more oppo frozen pucks and thus better ice for the #1 and #2 lines on the subsequent change.

    Above all I never, ever, want to see Butter’s old favorite assignment. 4th lines sent out post oppo icing. I cursed everytime he did that… I remember last season on the heels of back to back icing calls on the Oilers kid line he deployed the 4th line (including PLLL)… I damn near threw the remote at the screen in disgust.

  • internuncial

    The ‘grit’ thing is severely overrated I think. I still remember hearing Burke saying that size was a major factor in who he drafts and I just shake my head.

  • internuncial

    I was wondering when Yelle’s name would come up. Who here wouldn’t love that guy, in his prime, on the Flames roster right now? Great shutdown forward, excellent in the circle, heart of a lion. What was his nickname again?

    Yup, I agree with Kent that this is the hole the Flames need to address: guys that can play shutdown hockey so Jarome’s line doesn’t have to.

  • O.C.

    I say that descriptors like “grit”, “heart”, etc. are just ways of saying “this guy is severly lacking in one or more of the more skilled components of the game”. obvs it’s a case by case basis, but…

  • xis10ce

    Grit as it translates strictly to pugalism seems as though it’s being phased out. I mean Ivanans, Desbien and PL3 (great use of a 5th rounder) remain currently unsigned.

    I almost feel as though it’s a buzz word used to help explain the otherwise horrible and inexplicable Sarich resigning.

    EDIT: We talk about gritty players I think Stephane Yelle, not Cory Sarich…

  • xis10ce

    I think this sort of goes without saying that the Flames can’t really afford (well actually they can but they really shouldn’t) to burden down their 4th line with a guy like Godard or Roy or any other tough guys that have played on the Flames roster previously.

    But grit is something different. If we had somebody like a Jackman that could contribute offensively and play in our top 9 then I think we should go after him. But in all likelihood, that player will probably not be available. Burrows and Backes or maybe Marchand.

    I agree Kent, the Flames have more issues to worry about than not having grit. Not having grit is a problem that you might hear about in San Jose or Detroit or a team that is at least reasonably close to making a run at the Cup. Right now our focus should just be getting our team good enough to make the playoffs. Since clearly for some reason a rebuild this season is out of the question……

  • I hate the implication that “grit” only translates to “hits and fights”. I guess it’s a part of it, but to me it’s more about the guys doing some of the tougher things they need to do to make a play. Fighting for the puck in close quarters along the boards, taking the hit to make the pass, that kind of thing.

    In many ways, a guy like Sven Baertschi actually has grit because he does these things. He doesn’t shy away from being hit, hits efficiently (just because not every hit is devastating doesn’t mean it’s not a hit), and is willing to muck it up in the corners.

    You want all of your players to have a willingness to do that kind of thing. You don’t have to go out and tangle with Jody Shelley to be gritty