Random Thoughts – Toughness And Monahan



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.

This has been looked at – from a number of angles – and overall the effect is not quite nothing for winning a fight, but it’s as close as nothing as to be generally unimportant.

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.

  • Purple Hazze

    Having a cheap Monahan in 16-17 vs a Monahan making $4-$5 million that season is going to have zero effect on the competitiveness of the team that year. First off, the cap will continue to rise and will probably be sitting around $75million that season. Secondly, name me one team where the cap has hindered a teams ability to remain competitive. You could make a case for the Blackhawks of 09-10 but the only reason they ran into cap problems was because of the $8million a year they handed out to a useless Brian Campbell, if they didn’t have him that team they would have been kept together. Its those types of deals that hurt a teams cap situation, not burning up ELC years.

    Every team since the cap started has found ways to remain under it without having to gut the core, as an example, we could simply dump Wideman’s contract that year on a team trying to reach the floor etc.

    Monahan’s contract status should not be the reason he gets sent back, if he deserves to stay with his level of play, keep him up, if he’s not up to the level of play send him back. That should truly be the only criteria used in this decision.

    • Parallex

      What? Of course it would have an effect on the competitiveness. That dollar amount is probably the difference between being able to have a couple of legit 2nd line guys playing on your 3rd or just having typical middle depth guys (if for just a little while).

      That’s the kind of difference between being a powerhouse and being a run-of-the-mill club. It’s the kind of money that allows you to make a Campbell sized mistake (Which isn’t that easy to be rid of… see Lacavalier/Dipetro) and remain competative.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    Keeping Monahan for PR reasons OR sending him down for future ‘cost savings’ are two terrible, and IMO, laughable justifications.

    The outcome is not how many wins will Monahan add to Calgary this year. The desired outcome is for Sean to play in the place that allows him to grow the most.

    If you look at this through the rather myopic lens of on ice growth only you could easily convince yourself that junior is best. However, think of EVERYTHING that goes into maximizing human potential (how do you make an elite athlete)?

    Take it out of the context of hockey and examine it a different way:

    If you had a child that demonstrated ‘giftedness’, what would you do? Keep him/her in a regular school and expose them to convention or find an environment that accelerates their learning? Will cost win out, especially when you can afford it but in the lifetime of your child you would prefer to save money for a few years.

    Now, if you can’t look at Monahan and IMMEDIATELY see his giftedness then this is a pointless exercise. To me, it’s gob smackingly obvious. Just watch him. I’m not saying he’s Crosby or that he flashes obvious skills. What I see is an 18 year old who can control the play (sometimes that means making a routine play or an amazing play – what is the quality of your decision making?) at the NHL level. His mind is his gift.

    Another point I think about is the young players who are no longer prospects but established but still growing NHLers like Brodie, Backlund, Sven and the WOWY stat. When I watch Monahan play he just screams WOWY monster (he makes people better – perhaps in more ways than shots). I think it serves the Flames better to have that happen with Flames’ assets rather than unaffiliated players (junior).

    Finally, in terms of organizational behaviour/psychology what impact does telling employees that we need to see A,B,C progressions, your employee does them and you tell them it’s not good enough (because you’re thinking of future earnings reports). You will never get greatness that way.

    This idea that tomorrow will be a better time is garbage in the realm of professional sports. Maximize now. Do what’s best now (for growth) and the transactional details will get sorted. Especially if you (Flames) can be disciplined and show integrity by acting in the best interests of your players.

    Of course, my assessment could be wrong and he’s not that player…yet. Then by all means send him down but if the decision is pre determined on cost savings?? Bad.

    • Parallex

      Excellent comments Jeff. Do what is in the best interests of the person, and if he’s good enough and accomplishes what they ask of him he should stay. It will further inspire him and others around him. If you go back on your word (meritocracy) you’re sending a message to far more than that single player…

  • ChinookArchYYC

    It makes no sense rushing an 18 year old into the NHL, and potentially ruining his development warming the bench waiting for 4th line minutes. Presently, Monahan is not better than either Backlund or Stajan, and likely no better than Knight. Read: NO BENEFIT to Monahan’s development, and probably a detriment. He will undoubtably get top minutes in the OHL, and play on the national team with and against other top talents. Why rob him of the chance to improve?

    The Flames will get a PASS this year from the fans precisely because the rebuild is on, so trying to sell Monohan as a saviour is premature at this point. In my view, the Flames can sell that dribble next season, or the one after that. Fans will continue to buy the product and occupy seats, and hopefully patience will embrace us all.

  • BitGeek

    Loved the “Rock Stew” metaphor.

    Good reading once again. Plus I love reading the comments for the alternate viewpoints too.

    I definitely agree on the points made about toughness for toughness sake. If a guy isn’t skilled at something else beyond being a face puncher, then he’s just taking minutes away from a contributor.

    I’m not sold either way on keeping Monahan in the minors though.

    I understand the value from saving his ELC years but I also get the potential risk of a player holding out for more if they’re held back too long.

    Plus like many people have stated already, these players are people and it helps to have an organization that treats them as such (beyond their strict monetary value). It certainly might influence someone like Gaudreau to stick around or leave based on how they treat assets like Monahan.

  • Reidja

    Re Monahan, I completely agree even though it sucks that we will have to wait to see him in the lineup.

    In fact (quoth Wilson):

    “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.”

    Replace Monahan with Baertschi in this statemet and I think it still stands. I hope Sven can survive this season without either 1) getting badly injured or 2) sent to the minors with more ego-crushing disappointment.

  • Parallex

    Finishing checks is the only grit chart stat I choose to acknowledge. That said, the confidence gained by having one of the toughest dudes in the league on your bench is huge, albeit immeasurable, it’s whether or not the rest of the team takes advantage of it is the real question.

  • Truculence

    I don’t really buy the ELC argument when a player like Monahan is relatively over-aged for his draft crop. For all intents and purposes, he will be playing the entire season as a 19 year old, and already has 3 seasons of junior under his belt. Hence, he will be 22 once his new contract kicks in, which is pretty average for top-ten forward picks. Secondly, I am very skeptical that 4 years in junior will somehow accelerate his development curve or make him a better player in the long run.

    If someone made the same remark about Mackinnon or Drouin or others with late-birthdates, I would probably concur, but not in Monahan’s case.

  • seve927

    The other side of the argument on Monahan would be, with the tendency toward bridge deals, the value contract is getting extended to 5 years before the big payoff. Delaying him a year makes it more likely that he demands a big payday at the expiry of his ELC, meaning that you actually get less value at what might be the most critical time: 2016-2018.

    I think you just do what’s right for the player. I’d personally rather not see him play this year. I have no idea what will be better for his development (I’d guess junior), but I think the Flames do, and I’d rather see them do what’s right for him, than try to get cute to squeeze out an extra year of cheap labour. That to me seems shortsighted. Just do whatever you can to allow him to be the best player he can.

  • seve927

    Ferland’s fight did contribute to the win. He picked the right time and knew his team needed something to wake them up as they were being dominated in all areas of the game. Sometimes it is a big hit, sometimes it is a goal and sometimes it is a fight. Sometimes it doesn’t work but the message Ferland sent to his team and the Canucks was that he was here to compete and there will be no more running us over. His teammates got the message.

  • Derzie

    Some players are ready, some are not (see Nugent-Hopkins, R.). Numbers suggest a whole lot more are NOT ready. It’s up to Flames staff to find a place where Monahan can grow and not stagnate but also not be pounded like the Nuge up north.

    • Parallex

      Why? What sense (or tangible benefit) is there in having the team burn an artificially cheap year off of his contract in order to have him play in what is almost assuredly a gap year regardless of his presense?

      • DoubleDIon

        I generally agree that Monahan should be sent down, but if he looks like he belongs in the top 9 I keep him up. I’d be upset if I was the 7th best player at camp and was sent down so a team could save an entry level year. The goodwill of your players is worth something and if he’s good enough to play a top 9 role in the NHL then he’ll develop best at that level.

        I’d hate to see us use him 5 minutes a game on the 4th line like they did with Bartschi. Total waste if that’s the case. Make it clear to him that he’ll stick if he’s a top 9 forward and let the chips fall where they may.

        I love the statistical analysis on this site. But players are people, and good organizations treat their people as people, not just assets.

      • icedawg_42

        If he proves he deserves to be here (and I’m not saying he has – or even that I know how that’s defined) and gets sent back to junior just because, business…what does that say about “Meritocracy” – what does that do to his confidence or his trust in the org?

    • icedawg_42

      That was pretty much my question to Kent – or anyone who has an opinion. What is the criteria to decide if he’s ready. Is, Monahan having, as Kent said above “a strong camp” enough?

      • Parallex

        My criteria would be thus…

        A: Is he a fully formed player (i.e. is there nothing for him to learn at the CHL level)? B: Would the minutes he’d be playing in the NHL (Relative to the minutes he’d have in the CHL) be a detriment to his development?

        If the answers are not “Yes” to the first and “No” to the second I save myself a cheap year on the contract and return him to the 67’s. Considering that to reach the criteria for “A” as I view it you have to be a Crosby/#1 overall type talent (Elite of the Elite) I would send nearly all guys drafted back to their respective feeder leagues.

        So no merely a “strong” camp is not enough. He’d need to demonstate that returning him to the CHL would actually be a detriment to his career (and thus future worth to the Flames).

        I’m very strongly against putting someone on the team just so that some fans can internally go “Yay Youth!” when the potential cost is a lowered future probability of all fans going “Yay Cup!”.

        • DoubleDIon

          I don’t think anyone has said anything about keeping him around so we can say “Yay Youth.” That would be stupid. I think people are saying they’d like for the Flames to be an “earn it” organization. I don’t want to see players treated just like a commodity. If he’s clearly better than other top 9 options then he deserves to be here. I would be upset (so would you, so would Kent) if I was held back at work so that the company could save some cash on me down the line when I deserved the promotion over someone else. Asset thinking is one thing, being blatantly cheap is another. If I was Monahan and the organization sent me back to Junior to save 500k down the line I’d make sure they paid more than they saved when I was a UFA or I’d walk.

          • Parallex

            They wouldn’t be sending him back to save 500K… they’d be sending him back to save 5-6M. If you can save 5/6M on a Elite player that’s the difference between having average depth and amazing depth for however long you can do it. Sean Monahan is not a perfect player. There are things he can do better and they are things he can work on at the CHL level.

            Like it or not hockey is a business and the smart business decision is almost certainly to keep him in Junior at least one more year. Even you basically acknowledge that when you say “If he’s clearly better than other top 9 options”… there are 12 forward positions (13 if you count the spare) so clearly you think that it’s acceptable to hold him back if he beats out portions of the competition. So then really the only real difference between us isn’t a question of principle it’s a question of scale.

          • DoubleDIon

            How would they be saving 5-6 million? You’re making the assumption that at 21-22 he’d be a 8.5-9.5 million dollar player. I’d say he’s more likely in the 4 million range tops. I know you don’t think that he’s a 8-10 million dollar player, but you’re forgetting to add the max ELC that he’d get otherwise. Some comparables for Monahan from 2010 that are relevant are: Johansen, Niederreiter and Connolly by draft position. All of whom are presently, or slated to be smaller cap hits than their entry level deals were.

            If he has a break out year like Kadri or Duchene did he’s slated for the 2.9-3.5 million that those guys got. So no, there is no plausible scenario that Monahan becomes a 5-6 million dollar player unless he looks like he’s going to be elite and absolutely no scenario where he becomes a 8-10 million dollar player.

            If he becomes Tavares or Hall I’d be absolutely delighted to pay him 5-6 million per btw.

            EDIT: I do think it’s detrimental to his development to play 4th line minutes. So yes, his development trumps the earning it portion of the assessment. But saving a bit of money and losing the goodwill of the player doesn’t. I know Feaster’s buzz words have often not amounted to anything, but a meritocracy has worked well for the Senators and I’d like to see the same philosophy applied by the Flames. With the obvious caveat of it being beneficial to the development of the player. In other words, no more Bartschi’s playing with Jackman/Kostopolous types.

          • Parallex

            No, I’m not. What I said is basically that we can save 5/6M on him if he’s an elite player at that point. Because an elite player would be making 6/7Mish. Monahan will make $925,000 the last year of his ELC (the rest is in bonuses which won’t count against the cap that year). 6/7M – 925K… you do the math.

            Also, people should stop mentioning Kadri. If Sean Monahan is like Kadri not only should he not be playing in the NHL this year, he shouldn’t next year, and possibly shouldn’t the year after. Nazim Kadri wasn’t ready to play in the NHL as a 19yo.

        • icedawg_42

          Good points – For me – the only way he’s going to learn any more at the CHL level, is if he’s traded to a legit league contender, with potential to play for the mem cup.

          in other words…sending him specifically to the ’67’s isn’t going to do much for him (IMO)

          • Parallex

            I would assume that so long as the 67’s front office isn’t composed of raging lunatics that they will trade him. They probably won’t get a 20yo season out of him and as a 19yo star center he’d be the most valuable 1 year rental player in the OHL since he won’t eat an overage slot.

            My guess would be that he’d go to Barrie. I figure that Barrie is probably losing Scheifele but they still have Ekblad so I imagine they’ll want to go for a run while he’s on roster. I think that’s the case to since they bid to be the Memorial Cup host city (losing out to London). They’ll need a replacement for Scheifele and Monahan would slide right in.

  • As far as toughness as a useless standalone quality is concerned, I don’t disagree entirely.
    But Michael Ferland isn’t just looking like a goon-and-that’s-all. And you can say that the win after the Ferland fight is post hoc ergo propter hoc: but it ain’t just Clyde who thought that – it was everybody who watched INCLUDING THE COACH.

    Just being a puncher is nothing, but I know I’m not the only Flames fan who remembers the team totally turning games around after Iginla kicked somebody’s ass.

  • icedawg_42

    I left out my opinions on ‘grit and toughness’…I know what it’s like to play angry, and with a “burr in my saddle”. It can give you a boost, but it can also make you forget what you’re trying to accomplish…then again I’m nowhere near pro calibre.

    EDIT: Better than Vintage_Flame though.

  • icedawg_42

    I don’t disagree with your points on hoarding Monahan’s ELC. I fully agree that he’ll be more value when the team is ready to compete once more. When you say you have no problem with kids sticking on merit – don’t you see his strong camp as enough merit to warrant having him stick for the time being?

    – let’s say you were making that decision at this moment. (leaving out of the equation the 9 game window in the regular season, and what he does with it)

  • Parallex

    This pretty much mirrors what I think… Toughness is a great thing to have but only so long as it’s toughness on top of actual skill and not toughness in lieu of actual skill.

    For the good of the Flames (and eventually the Fans) Monahan must return to Junior (Where I imagine he’ll promptly be traded unless the 67’s are run by idiots). A cheap Monahan with a competative Flames team will allow the Flames the opportunity to build amazing depth (if for only a little while). Needs to happen.

  • Arik

    Hitting the nail on the head re: Monahan. Doesn’t matter how good he is relative to the rest of the team, he’s still an 18 year old rookie. No sense in rushing him for the sake of yelling “FUTURE” through a megaphone.

    It’s bad decision-making short and long term.

  • Demetric

    your points on Monahan:

    1. Wont significantly help the club … that would not be the point. the point being where will he develop the most/better. so your that likely wont be a big contributor is meaningless at this point in time.

    2. Burning a year on ELC, valid point, but in the real big picture it may not have too large of an affect.

    Now with that being said, I agree I think it would probably be best for Monahan to get his 9 cups of coffee then take what he has learned and go back to junior and work on those points.

    as far as grit and grit alone, I agree no real place in todays game, however, fights can turn the tide of the game, as it did in the prospects game. The thing is it does not always work, but sometimes it does. Again not saying you need a face puncher but if you can get a face puncher that can play hockey all the better.

  • Danny Lawson

    RE: burning a year of ELC.

    I have a counter to this idea that using a year now is worse than using a year in 2016-17. Think of it this way, if you, as a blogger, has figured out this is a loophole to keep good players at a bargain later into their career, the players agents have most definitely figured this out as well.

    As players who deserve to make the NHL get put back for cap reasons, we will see an inflation in the demands from agents for their second contract, nullifying the advantage given from a cheap contract year.

    We are starting to see that already with the Kadri situation. He was a player that was pushed in the minors perhaps a little longer than necessary, restricting his earning capacity in that time, as well as his bargaining power for his second deal. The result was a souring of player/organization relationship, a bridge contract and higher demands from Kadri than probably were warranted by his stats.

    I say if Monahan deserves the NHL, you play him in the NHL.

    • Parallex

      Nazim Kadri was held onto the exact amount of time that he needed to be held onto. He needed seasoning time in the AHL and if you need seasoning in the AHL then your not ready to play in the NHL in your sub-20yo years.

      IMO. Not a counter (or at least not a good example of a counter) to needlessly burn a ELC year.

  • DoubleDIon

    Grit, toughness do not always translate into fights. Many great player in the past and in the present have had toughness. I believe that grit and toughness are intangibles that can make a player great. I’m not one for the staged fight and when those occur I change the channel, but when a trues emotional fight occurs as part of the game I can live with that.

    Monahan is playing well and the Flames are giving him plenty of opportunity to prove himself. Like you I believe he should go back after his 9 game window. Based upon his play I wonder if Poirier may get n extended look as well. One of teh additional reasons for sending Monahan back down to Juniors is that the Flames need to give the college centers a longer look as well as Granlund. It’s clear that Monahan is above them at this time but in tear of a rebuild you really need to access your prospects, keeping him here past nine games would limit this process.