Burke, Value and Truculence


– via Down Goes Brown


Since the management switch a lot of folks have been asking me what I think about Brian Burke’s professed focus on size and toughness. Luckily enough I’ve talked about this before, so I’m going to pull a bit from the archives to discuss this issue now.

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Regular readers will remember a series of theory based articles I did in the off-season of 2012 dubbed "asking the right questions". In the third article "Content Over Style", I noted how a singular focus on qualitative (ie; descriptive) facets of a players scouting report can lead to constructing subjective – rather than objective – vision of the player in question. The point being that it matters more that a player gets results rather than how he might get them.


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.

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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. And deploying liabilities because their scouting report coincides with a conventional role or category is ineffective.

To put it more plainly: toughness for the sake of toughness is dumb.

Usually this is where a commenter or two will point out that having beef on a roster can help and inspire other players to perform better, play "bigger". In the second article of the series (The imprecise and unattainable) I tackled this hypothesis as well:

Although looking for toughness or poise or leadership sounds desirable (and their lack makes for a plausible explanation for failures), the problem with those concepts is their subjectivity and imprecision. During such press conferences, I always wait for someone in crowd to start asking for specifics when GM’s start throwing out the ol’ "we need our men to be decidedly more manly" quotes.

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While concepts like toughness/leadership/poise are easy to visualize as useful, tangible factors, they can’t actually be identified or quantified in any meaningful sense. As such, they also can’t be applied in any sort of rigorous analysis in terms of how "generally accepted positive quality X" affects goal differential (ie; wins) – except in the most rudimentary way (they probably help somehow).

It’s that type of thinking that leads you to trade a third round pick for an overpaid Steve Staios at the deadline or sign a doddering, gin-soaked Nikolai Khabibulin for $2 million too much and two years too long. The idea that reputation and attitude in the room trumps on-ice performance or talent level is what so often leads to bad bets or gross inefficiency.

I’ll grant that there is a minimum level of grit and toughness that is required to make the league as a regular. It’s a rough game after all. And there are definitely players who can leverage toughness as an advantage on the ice.

But I will always reject the notion that size or toughness alone are useful factors. The NHL is simply littered with below replacement level guys by any rational measurement of actual performance in the league, simply because they’re bigger or meaner than the average bear. Say it with me: bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Or, if a guy can’t turn size and toughness into something that drives results, then he’s just running around trying to hurt dudes for the sake of it. And giving up goals in the process.


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Another reason this type of team building bothers me is it limits options. I mentioned in a previous iteration of this column that having a sub-NHL enforcer on the 4th line every night effectively neuters that combination as useful unit. A coach can’t realistically give non-tough guys trying to find their NHL legs time on the 4th line because they can can’t meaningfully compete or work on their skills at 5 mins/game while dragging a goon around the ice.

From what Burke has said so far, it sounds like he plans to stock the bottom-6 with big guys, which makes the path up the roster suddenly a lot more difficult for guys like Max Reinhart, Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund. There’s no question that Burke has time for smaller dudes who can score at high rates (he traded the farm for Phil Kessel), but then not everyone leaps fully formed into the league as a guy who can obviously score at above average rates. 

Furthermore, there’s also the interesting long-shot, high-reward gambles who are often blocked (or at least slowed considerably) by the "big body, bottom-6" convention. The Calgary Flames organization bought out Martin St. Louis’ contract in the summer of 2000 because the new regime judged him as "too small to be a checker" (he wasn’t obviously a scorer in the NHL yet). Imagine how completely keeping St. Louis could have changed this organization’s fortunes…

On the other hand, there’s almost no real upside to player who are in the league simply because they’re big. With Brian McGrattan you get…well, Brian McGrattan. With the Linus Omark’s of the world (to pick a name), maybe you don’t get anything more than a Waterbug who can only score in the AHL. Then again, maybe you get Brian Gionta, Theoren Fleury or St.Louis.

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Personally, I’d use my 4th line as a rotating audition for a top-9 audition. To some degree that’s true of 4th lines today, but the process is stunted and skewed because on the perpetual fetishization of size and toughness at the bottom end of the rotation.

Toughness isn’t bad

I often get accused of hating grinders. Not true. Grindesr aren’t necessarily good or bad, which is why it’s important to judge them according to results rather than style of play. Again: I simply don’t think grinders are inherently useful by mere dint of their size or perceived role (adding energy! Big body presence! Other nonsense!).

There are some pretty useful big, mean, tough, hard-nosed guys in the league. But they’re useful because they have NHL-level skills beyond mere "truculence". If a player can drive play or at least suppress the other team’s scoring or kill penalties, then I have time for him. If the puck goes the wrong direction and the club bleeds shots and goals against with him on the ice, then I could care less how square his jaw is or how intimidating his stare. Size is important insofar as it helps the team do the things that actually wins hockey games, and no further.

  • MichaelD

    Nice Article,

    The flames are small, and personally I think a lot of the guys we count on to score are on the left side of the bell curve in terms of size, so the team feels a need to compensate with bigger tough players like McGratton on the fourth line. Although I have a soft spot for guys like that, I like to cheer for them and like to see them succeed.

    I wanna believe that Burke has a goal to beef up the whole lineup, and that when he says ‘We need to get bigger’ he’s not just talking about goons and fighters

  • Derzie

    LA and Boston are flush with toughness but the underlying factor is always NHL level skill to go with it. Just big (or just skill for that matter. See Cervenka, Roman)don’t fly. Words like ‘smash mouth’ and ‘black & blue hockey’ are patent insanity given the NHL direction of suspending for anything that hurts a player. Whatever Burke does, I hope he does it fast so it ends fast. This era of Truculence could rival the Young Guns era in a battle for worst era in our history.

    • McRib

      I agree, fully with Kent that skill win’s out over toughness when averaged out on a 23 Man Roster all day, but I also think Burke is trying to make a valid point that teams with a couple skilled power forwards (and a few big defenseman Chara, Pronger, etc) usually fair very well. It is also the most sought after position to obtain.

      Anze Kopitar (6’3″) + Jeff Carter (6’4″) = Stanley Cup. Ryan Getzlaf (6’4″) + Corey Perry (6’3″) = Stanley Cup. Milan Lucic (6’4″) + Nathan Horton (6’2″) = Stanley Cup. Evgeni Malkin (6’3″) + Jordan Staal (6’4″) = Stanley Cup. Even look at Henrik/Daniel Sedin (6’2″) & Kesler almost winning a cup for Vancouver thanks to Burke.

      Burke is trying to make the point that you need to have some skilled power forwards playing in your Top. 6 to get through the grind of an 82 Games Season & another 22+ Playoff Games. Lets not forget though that he also drafted Morgan Rielly & Nazem Kadri two undersized, but highly skilled players in Toronto.

      I think when Burke says Truculence… People worry that it is Darryl Sutter 2.0 looking for size with absolute zero skill (i.e. drafting Matt Pelech in the first). Burkie’s track record shows that he brings in big, but also skilled players (Sedin’s, Perry, Getzlaf, Pronger, Franson, Gardiner, Van Riemsdyk, Phaneuf, etc)

      • CDB

        I agree witt what you’re saying. My concern would be passing on the Baertschi’s for the Tyler Biggs, Matt Pelech etc. Or not even considering the Gaudreaus in the later rounds. Burke is very old school and set in his ways which concerns me.

        Perry and Getzlaf were both drafted by Bryan Murray, by the way. But he does have a track record with some big skilled guys.

        Also concerning is that his “acclerated rebuild” took 5 years and was a train wreck in TO.

        But time will tell how things play out here.

      • Burnward

        “Lets not forget though that he also drafted Morgan Rielly & Nazem Kadri two undersized, but highly skilled players in Toronto.”

        He also drafted Tyler Biggs in the first round.

        That statement stands for itself.

  • mattyc


    The point being that it matters more that a player gets results rather than how he might get them.

    Minor quibble (and I think it’s mainly with the wording); but if I was building a team, I would be focusing more on the process than the results. I think this is really important, and a huge mistake that GMs often make (seeing Clarkson as a 30 goal scorer because of one year with 5min/g on the PP). It’s easier to get seduced by results than by process, and as a GM, you should be focused on the long run where the process should be a better predictor than goals and assists.

    Slightly off topic, but I remember listening to a Darryl Sutter press conference at the beginning of the season ( I can’t remember which one anymore), but someone asked him if his team was going to score enough this year, and he listed last year’s goals for players he acquired vs. those he released as a “we’ll be fine” thing. I couldn’t help thinking that it was such poor logic.

  • Derzie

    I just want to make the distinction of actual size vs. how you play.

    An example is Lee Stempniak. It’s not necessarily small at 6′ 200lbs, But he plays a lot bigger than his actual size.

    on the other side is someone like coulborne. He is huge but plays small.

    I think the idea of how big you play is more important than actual size.

    I Also want to note that size does not equal strength. I want strong players (hard to knock off the puck, and can knock other people off the puck) more than tall players.

    • CDB

      Excellent points Dave. So true. It’s important to quantify what people should actually be after. There are plenty of 5’10 or smaller guys that are harder and stronger to play against than the Colbornes ect. of the world. Trying to “get bigger” by simply measuring height and weight is a bad idea. It doesnt accurately reflect the attributes and abilities of the the players.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    I know my thoughts on this are not popular but…

    Burke and his fans talk about toughness requirements as if it is the norm or convention to building teams.

    What I see in statements like that is the nexus to why dinosaurs like Burke remain (he exemplifies the old school scouts in Moneyball). That nexus is ‘conventional thinking’.

    To me conventional thinking is mediocre thinking. The thinking has become convention not because it produces great results, rather it prevents horrible losses. Its risk averse thinking.

    You can measure truculence with scales and measuring tape. If a player ‘tips the scales’ a certain way – he has to be truculent.

    Great thinking or non conventional thinking is what happens when you eschew convention because the rewards are not great enough – you can be a playoff team but you won’t win the Cup.

    Great thinking is when you try and identify the skill that is simultaneously the most difficult to quantify AND the most important to individual and team success – Cup winning success – great hockey smarts/ hockey IQ / brains. Chicago is the best team because of the collective hockey IQ of their core players, from 6’2 Toews to 5’10 Kane.

    Conventional thinking is for meatheads who can’t see that Martin St Louis could be a real player in this league.
    Its for meat heads who take Tyler Biggs in the first round.

    With ME, KK and BB you have a bunch of guys who lucked out with conventional thinking and now they think they’re gods. Its all ego with this org right now.

    What could’ve been something special – do people really think Feaster wasn’t addressing the size issue with the lineup? He had recently acquired skilled players who were smallish only because there was such a dearth of true skill on the team. Before Burke was hired, he talked about the size issue recalling line sizes with SJ- is now going to be turned over to consensus thinking/convention/mediocre minds (this is good enough) mentality.

    These are my concerns about Burke but I will reserve final judgment on his hires and what they do. IF they acquire Ferland like toughness and mix it in then great. Or if they draft Kopitars or Ellers, I can live with that – what about Gaudreaus in the 4-5th round???

    If they start shipping out the Granlund’s and Reinhart’s of the world for ‘sandpaper’ I will make a Burke voodoo doll (complete with wild, unkept hair) and poke the hell outta that thing.

    If the next Duncan Keith is out there waiting to be drafted or signed would a Burke mentality take him? Or will he just see ‘undersized’ defenceman who doesn’t really play with hostility?

    I honestly don’t know the answer so that’s why I’ll wait and see. Fingers not crossed.

  • CDB

    I think what Burke wants is a team identity of Truculence and toughness. Creating an identity is crucial to team success and team building.

    I was browsing oilernation the other day and There is an interesting interview with Boston’s GM about how he built his team. There are several “identities” that can win the cup. Boston, Chicago, Pittsburg, Detroit, LA, Anaheim, Vancouver, etc. have different identities yet they are competitive every year.

  • sathome

    For me it is about balance. We need to identify the skill set that leads to winning teams and build a team in that model. Having checkers who are difficult to play against and win battles down low are part of that balance. Having finesse guys who make creative passes resulting in goals is also part of that balance. Truculence may be an ingredient but it is not THE ingredient.

    Wow re: the lineup. Possible Stempniak and Cams out of the lineup. Some on here have been suggesting that vets need to be under the same microscope as rookies but wow. After being a pretty solid supporter of Hartley on here this decision really has me question his decision making. (a conclusion that others have come to much quicker than I) I would reduce ice team before yanking the skill in your lineup. Are Jones and Grats really going to help us to win over Stemps and Cammy? Maybe we will win and Hartley will be right but I find this move along with going back to Berra puzzling to say the least.

    Finally Kent I appreciate the article though I was pretty familiar with your thoughts on the subject. In a more direct way, do you think that Feaster/ Wisebroad deserved to be fired? Also is moving Sven to the minors the right thing for his development? Who would you like to see as out next GM?

  • McRib

    It’s true Boston and LA both have really big teams, 2 of the last 3 Cup champs, but people don’t always seem to remember that Chicago wasn’t a very big team, at least not at all compared to the Bruins or Kings. Chicago’s players also are not guys that they have built their franchise around. Seabrook (ok maybe him), Handzus, Bollig, and Bickel. Hardly the core of a Stanley Cup Champion.

    Guys like Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Keith are their core. Only 1 of those guys is above 210, and 3 of them are listed as 200 pounds or less.

    • Burnward

      3 of their top 6 playoff scoring forwards were Bickel, Hossa and Handzus. Players between 6’2 to 6’5 and 220-240lbs. Like Burke says, you need these big guys to allow the smaller guys to succeed.

      • everton fc

        Hossa is 6’1, 210 pounds btw. BTW Chicago had the least amount of hits last year.

        Just because someone has a big body doesn’t mean they have any more value than a skilled, smaller player. See Kane, Patrick

          • Burnward

            Uh since when have Handzus and Bickell been top scorers for the Hawks? I mean consistently, not 20 games in the playoffs.

            Toews and Hossa are both close to being average NHL weight. Toews is officially 208, and the average size of NHLers in 2010 was about 204 pounds.


            Nice of you to ignore both Sharp and Kane, not to mention Andrew Shaw, Micheal Frolik, and Dave Bolland, who were 3 other important members of their Cup winning team who are certainly undersized.

          • RKD

            If you had read my comment you would have noticed that I was referring to their playoff run. Since Toews and Hossa are well above league average in weight, they are bigger players. I didn’t say that the smaller guys were not important but I was trying to point out that the bigger players on that team played a very important role in their success. I have never stated that a skilled smaller player is not important but for whatever reason, you seem to think I have.

          • RKD

            You seem to be saying that teams need to be big to win games. I’m giving you empirical evidence that this isn’t the case.

            And does being a mere 5 pounds heavier than the league average constitute being a “bigger” player?

          • RKD

            No, I’m not saying you have to be bigger in all areas to win. But, 5 lbs heavier than the avg means they are bigger. And, you are ignoring the FACT that Chicago had a group of 4 forwards of their top 6 who led them in playoff scoring who were at least 5 lbs bigger than the league avg. That is evidence.

          • EugeneV

            The point may be that in the playoffs is where those big bodied players come to the fore.

            Do you want to win the Presidents Trophy or the Stanley Cup?

            Yes, a good team needs to be made up of all sorts of complementary types of players, with different skill sets and yes, even different body types.

        • everton fc

          I get the point of the article. But you stated Chicago was mainly built with smaller skilled types but they are in fact a team that has some very important bigger players

          • everton fc

            When Chicago won it’s 1st Cup they had big Buff who was a friggin tree trunk & the 6’3″ Andrew Ladd. I laugh that most read this & jump on the Burke hater wagon thinking he is going to trade Backlund & Baers & Gaudreau for any 6’4″ 240 pounder that can put on skates. I see nothing wrong with having big guys that can hit, skate & put the puck in the net. Why would that declared mandate be criticized? I also found it interesting that Rob Kerr was saying yesterday on the Fan 960 that Burkes impatience was related to the speed of which the team was been torn down. I think we are going to see some pretty interesting trades in the near future. It’s all fun.

          • Matty Franchise Jr

            “I see nothing wrong with having big guys that can hit, skate & put the puck in the net.”

            No one sees anything wrong with that. It’s when you take big guys that can hit, or big guys that can hit and skate, that you end up in trouble.

            Putting the biscuit in the basket is the key.

  • BurningSensation

    Everbody wants the next Lucic, but they’re few and far between.

    Look at Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Not the biggest, but their heart and will to succeed combined with their talent level is what makes them great.

    I agree with everything in the article. I can’t figure out why KW doesn’t have a gig writing for a major sports publication. Great stuff in there. Keep it up, reading most of the articles in the papers makes me want to puke. This stuff is so refreshing. Analysis how it should be. Analysis, period!

  • McRib

    What’s interesting to me is that every year there seems to be a player like a Tomas Hertl who is both big and highly skilled, but ends up being picked way later than they should’ve been. And afterwards it’s like “it was so obvious, how did he slip so far.”

    If a team just drafted all ofthat ‘obvious’ guy with size AND skil every year, you’d have a hell of a team. Not that simple, I know, just saying that there seems to be one in every draft.

  • everton fc

    I agree with the masses – good article, Kent. I think if you can get size and speed, you go for it. Of course, not easy to do, but Burke seems to believe he can make this happen here.

    Time will tell, of course. Like I said the day Feaster got sacked and Burke came out with his “beef” comments, a guy like Ferland, if he can keep his head screwed on straight and listen/learn from Troy G. Ward… Ferland may be the type of player that’s a perfect fit, for guy like Burke. Ditto Poirier.

  • everton fc

    It’s about PLAYING big. not about actually being big and playing strong. it’s a crucial distinction that keeps getting missed.

    When talking about the benefit of size people think, puck protection, hard hitting, knocking people off the puck (puck retrieval, playing in front of the net.

    Many players do that without being overly huge. It’s more about strength, positioning, mental attitude, and how you see the game.

    Calgary needs players that PLAY big. not necessarily players that ARE big. When people use the average weight of a team, or the height of the top line. it means nothing. Its about how those players play on the ice. A good example is Kronwall. He’s 6′ 192. Hardly big for a defenseman however he plays as though he’s twice that size.

  • As someone who comes from more of a social sciences background I have a few small comments to make.

    First off, great reading Kent, as always, I appreciate how much effort you put into everything you do.

    It’s important not to get hung up on the idea or notion that quantitative analysis is the most objective and therefore the only type of analysis.
    Qualitative analysis can be useful and in fact under proper research conditions, when used correctly it informs quantitative analysis. All observations for example are qualitative analysis, however, some observations can be applied more readily to numbers for example a player who shoots a lot can be objectively evaluated by their shot statistics.

    In psychological research and other social science type research, even in medicine we actually do have a way to quantify qualitative notions. One example you used above, was the idea of leadership. What defines leadership? We can operationally define it and then create coding schematics that objectify leadership qualities. One example of a leadership quality i view as being important is how hard a player skates/works on each shift. The work ethic of a player on each shift can be defined by several factors. How much do they move their feet/skate, how many hits per shift they make, how many shots do they block, I’m sure there is a few more you could use. If I wanted to research good leaders in sports and come up with a list of NHL players who exemplify this I could do that.

    So for example. Such a coding chart might look like this. Legend for scouts: 1- barely skates, 5- skates 50% of the time but coasts as much as player skates hard 10 – never stops moving their feet skates 100% of the time during shift.
    ON a scale of 1 – 10 player X skates 100% on every shift = 10, 50% = 5, 10% = 1. A scout could then rank how hard he perceives the player skates on each shift and provide a number for the game then you would compile all the scouts responses and suddenly you have a value for how hard a player works on each shift based on these subjective observations. We make fun of Grit Chart all the time but the same could be done for hits, blocked shots and combined with other coded factors like how hard a player skates on each shift we can start to get picture of the complete player. We can also take the subjective evaluations from scouts and combine them into an analysis based on the predetermined coding schematic and look at whether there is a significant difference between players who hit more, skate harder, shoot more, score more, and whether those supposed tangibles scouts/teams evaluate that don’t necessarily have a statistic could indeed be evaluated objectively.

    Something tells me that McGrattan for example would rank lower compared to his 4th line equals across the league. This then would be an objective observation by which teams could evaluate their players. And lead teams to go and find a 4th line player who better represents that “truculent type” Burke speaks about.

    Me personally I am a huge proponent of advanced stats. Teams need to learn to combine the best of their qualitative factors with advanced stats and quantitative factors and maybe apply some proper social science research to their personnel and they would probably hit the home run of player analysis.

    My problem with Burke is he is defiant to advanced stats and that he ignores them completely tells me he’s not considering the whole picture. And if he’s willing to ignore advanced stats something tells me he isn’t going to properly instruct his scouts to conduct an objective qualitative analysis. And thus the problem is with the Prez himself and not the method.

  • sathome

    I know they aren’t Burke signings, but just think Clarkson vs Raymond. One of them is a skilled, speedy player being paid almost nothing (in NHL terms), the other is truculent and suspended.

  • RKD

    I think what Burke wants is the dome to be once again the intimidating place to play against. With a blueline once featuring guys like Reg and Phaneuf, other teams feared coming here. Now they skate circles and look like the Harlem Globetrotters and make ultrasoft players like Chris Butter look brutal. On the forward side, I think he is envisions having guys like a Jordan Nolan or a Dwight King rounding out the bottom six. It also wouldn’t hurt to have elite forwards with some size. Unfortunately, those guys don’t grow on trees.

  • RedMan

    I think we all can agree that the Flames should not make anymore critical decisions without consulting with Flames Nations first. I for one would be OK with Kent representing us all at FN.

    On a side note, i for one, while being very squeamish over the whole Jankowski drafting, took the “let’s see how it pans out, give Feaster the benefit of the doubt” stance. Now i am feeling even less comfortable with the draft, especially given the number of people that were passed up that are currently tearing it up in the NHL.

    I know – there was no way to know these guys were going to tear it up, but seriously, this guy wasn’t going to get drafted by anyone else for a long time in the draft… regardless of what they try to sell us.

    Ya, he may still become an NHL’er, but it looks less appealing all the time.