Much Ado About Brian McGrattan

One of the biggest enigmas surrounding the Calgary Flames has been Brian McGrattan.

Acquired from the Nashville Predators last year in exchange for minor-league defender Joe Piskula – and promptly signed to a two-year extension that runs through next season – McGrattan has developed a reputation as a tough customer and a great teammate.

Around these here parts, our own Kent Wilson has pondered the utility of guys like McGrattan, affectionately dubbing players who drop the gloves more often than they light the lamp “dancing bears.” While Flames players and coaches have expressed a great fondness for McGrattan, and fans seem to love the guy, too, the big question is…does he help the team win?

FACE-PUNCHING

Brian McGrattan fought a total of 11 times in 2013-14.

  • Oct. 30 (Toronto): Frazer MacLaren (Flames lost)
  • Nov. 8 (Colorado): Patrick Bordeleau (Flames lost)
  • Nov. 16 (Edmonton): Luke Gazdic (Flames lost)
  • Nov. 22 (Florida): Krys Barch (Flames won)
  • Nov. 27 (Chicago): Brandon Bollig (Flames lost)
  • Dec. 15 (NY Rangers): Dylan McIlrath (Flames lost in SO)
  • Dec. 29 (Vancouver): Tom Sestito (Flames lost)
  • Jan. 11 (Pittsburgh): Deryk Engelland (Flames lost)
  • Jan. 16 (Winnipeg): Anthony Peluso (Flames lost)
  • Jan. 18 (Vancouver): Tom Sestito (Flames lost in SO)
  • Mar. 12 (Anaheim): Bryan Allen (Flames won)

That translates into a 2-7-2 record for the team when McGrattan fought. Expanding the face-punching analysis to the whole team, they fought 32 times (middle-of-the-pack for the league) and the club went 5-17-3 when a Flame player fought. Now, before we go out and claim correlation is causation, remember – oftentimes a fighter fights because the team’s playing like hot garbage and needs a lift. 

A DETERRENT?

Still, it doesn’t look great by this measure and – as Kent has noted in the past – the data points to the “fighters as a deterrent” theory as full of holes (at best) and outright wrong (at worst).

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 8.01.48 PM

You might need to squint, but of the 8 skaters that played 100 minutes of even-strength hockey alongside McGrattan, exactly zero had better possession stats with him than without him. Our recent scoring chances breakdown also shows that McGrattan’s numbers are poor across the board, even though he was routinely out against the easiest competition that any regular forward faced.

A CHANGING ROLE?

McGrattan by month:

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March and April were interesting months.

First, the Flames had that big brawl in Vancouver. McGrattan was the only fighter on the team that didn’t get tossed, and due to the short bench everyone had to skate a regular shift without the usual shielding. Many Flames players noted that the team really came together to survive that game (and it wasn’t just a “yay, fights are awesome for team-building!” effect, it was that the team had to come together as a group to finish the game).

Second, Kevin Westgarth became Calgary’s primary fighter after that. After January 18, McGrattan fought once and Westgarth fought four times. McGrattan’s ice-time rose significantly, in-part because Bob Hartley used him as a third-ish line winger, typically on a line with somebody coming back from an injury or a prolonged absence (as happened with Curtis Glencross and Matt Stajan). These lines were shielded pretty well, but they did allow McGrattan to play with better players and generate some scoring chances.

Granted, McGrattan WAS moved up the depth chart because the Flames simply ran out of established, reliable NHLers and it made more sense – initially – to start them off lower on the depth charts and then bring them along slowly. It didn’t make a lot of sense to use the college kids in the top nine, so that explains much of McGrattan’s change of use. That said, it does show that the coaching staff preferred him in that third-line-tweener role over Westgarth, who remained buried.

WHAT’S HIS VALUE?

McGrattan makes basically nothing in terms of NHL salary – his cap hit is $750,000. He doesn’t play enough for his possession numbers to drag the team down all that much. His NHL employment is probably a product of his oft-mentioned “intangibles,” – he’s a renowned jokester and keeps the locker room light.

And on a young team, if you’re going to have replacement-level NHLers on your team – and during a rebuild, that’s going to happen – they’d better not detract from what the coaching staff and management are trying to build. If you’re going to be paying $750,000 for a guy that might be a healthy scratch as the Flames youngsters grow and challenge for NHL spots, it’s probably not a bad idea to have someone like McGrattan taking that 13th/14th forward spot. He’s a veteran and, so far, has seemed to be a good mentor to Sean Monahan, among others.

And at least he’s good for one or two really exciting break-away scoring chances per season.

  • prendrefeu

    When usimg stats you have to still look deeper at another layer… dont get me wrong… i think the writnd bloggers on this site do tjat… and do a good job a lot of the time.

    But at times it seems that stats are used selectively to back up a bias.

    We need to have more open anti linear thoufht on this site.

    It will make for better discussion

  • xploD

    When was the last time a bottom 5 team in size has ever made it to the finals. Probably 9000 years ago. You need both size and skill, but obviously if your team is tiny you’re gonna get smoked.

    • xploD

      Depends what you mean by size. Last year Chicago was about league-average in height, but they were the 3rd lightest team in the league and DEAD LAST in hits (in fact, they’ve been last in the league in hits for three years now).

      • piscera.infada

        I am by no means an authority on the subject at all, but when I use the term “big team” I generally mean tough on the forecheck and tough in the corners. It’s not necessarily hits or fights, and it’s definitely not size/weight. For instance, watching Minnesota in the playoffs this year, they were by no means a big (size) team and they weren’t big hitters, but they were extremely hard on the forecheck – this created offensive-zone turnovers and thereby possession. It’s exactly the way Chicago plays. Sure, you can have big players, whatever – it’s more so the style of play, focusing merely on height/weight just obfuscates the point.

        Moreover, after reading the post you responded to, I agree with you – it isn’t about “size rankings”.

        • Greg

          So by “big team” you just mean “good team”? 🙂

          Interesting that Chicago was was 3rd lightest team – I’d really like to see some charts showing team average size (weighted by ice time) vs winning percentage to see if there’s any correlation at all.