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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.