Usually my random thoughts missives feature a number of items, but this one is on just two that have cropped up recently: the value of toughness or "grit" in hockey and whether or not Sean Monahan should spend the year with the Flames.
First we’ll take on toughness. This issue was brought to my attention by frequent commenter (and antagonist of mine) Clyde when he said this after a Michael Ferland fight during the young stars tournament:
But, you can’t measure the impact Ferland’s grit made so it isn’t useful. Lol
Two things, but I’ll be particular first – attributing the Flames resurgence in the Canucks prospect game specifically to the Ferland fight is post hoc ergo propter hoc, or "after this therefore because of this". It’s tempting to applaud fights when good things happen after them, but to be honest one should keep a tab of how often that actually happens in order to derive a true effect from fisticuffs.
Which is the reason that most fights in hockey occur when the score is out of reach. To be sure, if fighting guaranteed a significant swing in shots and scoring chances, goons would be some of the most valuable players on any given club, rather than minimum wage, 4th line guys.
Secondly, and more generally, my position in regard to grit overall isn’t that it’s worthless, but rather, that it’s grossly overvalued and weighted incorrectly in traditional hockey terms. Like any other physical tool, grit is a boon if it leads to positive outcomes for the player and team on the ice, but not terribly useful otherwise. Just like skating, shooting and hockey sense, grit is potentially a means to and end but not an end unto itself.
Unfortunately, toughness seems to be the lone ability that can keep a guy in the show, absent any other NHL level qualities. You’ll usually see highly skilled but defensively disinterested forwards smeared as "one dimensional", but the truly one dimensional creatures in this league are the guys who are only around to crash and bang or chuck fists; the guys who are gross liabilities under almost any circumstance, who bleed shots and goals against and take more penalties than they draw, because the only NHL level skill they have is to absorb and dish out pain. As a result, they are eaten for breakfast by the actual NHLers they face each and every shift.
There are plenty of good hockey payers who count grit or toughness as a primary tool: Dustin Brown, David Backes, Milan Lucic, etc., etc. And there’s not doubt that every potential NHLer needs a certain threshold of "toughness" to make it into the show given the size, strength of the players and the inherent violence in the game. But grit as a stand-alone asset – toughness for toughness sake – is an inherently self-defeating strategy. The point of the game is to score more goals than the other guys, not merely prove you have the biggest balls.
It’s interesting to see how this misconception plays out across the league, particularly on bad teams whom convince themselves that at least some portion of their struggles can be attributed to not being gritty enough. This idea has afflicted the Oilers for years during their rebuild, resulting in the fruitless churn of relatively useless players through their bottom-6 rotation (Zack Stortini, Steve MacIntyre, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Mike Brown), ironically making their club worse and extending their stay at the bottom of the league.
A metaphor for that style of management, I think, is making a stew and then adding rocks for texture: while it might be entirely true that your stew is rather mushy and that rocks are indeed "crunchy", the addition does nothing to actually improve the meal.
Send Monahan Back to Junior
As of this writing Sean Monahan has had a strong training camp, which means the number of fans agitating for him to stay with the parent club all season has increased. I’ve gone on record before about this topic, but it bears repeating: burning a year of Monahan’s ELC at this point would be a mistake.
Firstly, because the chances of Monahan actually helping the Flames do anything meaningful this year is almost zero. The kid is too young and the team is too far away from competing for that to be realistic. Since the lock-out, only 29 forwards between the ages of 18-19 have played 65 games or more in their rookie season. Only 10 of them scored more than 50 points.
Secondly, as mentioned, it would be a poor allocation of a precious, limited resource. Entry level contracts are artificially capped by the league and the best potential value deals a team has. Most kids aren’t good enough during their first 3 pro years for that to matter much, but when potential stars come along, it makes sense to horde their 3 ELC seasons as long as possible – or least try to position them closer to a time when the team will be competitive in order to leverage those deals as much as possible.
Let’s put it this way – would a season of cheap Sean Monahan be more useful to the Flames now? Or to the Flames in 2016-17, which would be the last year of his ELC if Calgary were to send him back to junior this season? Because that’s the trade-off you make if Monahan sticks as an 18-19 year old.
It’s true that rebuilding clubs have a habit of keeping their recent high draft picks around even as teens, and sometimes it might be warranted on merit, but mostly it seems to be a PR and marketing tool used to mollify a fanbase eager for something to cheer about. And although I’m personally excited to see Monahan strut his stuff in the NHL, it strikes me as short-sighted at best to toss him head first into year 1 of the Flames probably lengthy rebuild effort.
I’m in this for the long haul, the bigger payoff, so I’m willing to suppress the wish for instant gratification so the team has a better chance of winning later.