There’s a tendency to want to interact with people you actually like throughout your day-to-day life. Family, friends, co-workers: all are people you’re probably going to have to see a lot. It’s that third group that can really cause issues, because there’s no blood obligation and you didn’t necessarily choose to spend time with them.
The NHL isn’t the average workplace, but it’s still a workplace. They get to play a game for a living, but it’s still a job, and teammates are co-workers. Hopefully they’re actually friends, too.
Brian McGrattan seems like a pretty swell dude: the kind of guy who’d be everyone’s friend.
There’s just one problem: he’s not really great at hockey. And that takes priority.
Welcome back to Calgary
McGrattan cost one Joe Piskula to reacquire. Who is Joe Piskula? He’s an AHL veteran defenceman. So basically, McGrattan came back to the Flames on the mega cheap.
His return was about a week or so before the Flames finally decided they had to trade Jarome Iginla. McGrattan was officially on a rebuilding team.
In 2013-14, he did two things: somehow became best friends with the Flames’ new stud rookie, Sean Monahan, and set a career high in games played with 76.
The Flames also did something that year: had their first ever bottom four finish, with a less-than-stellar 35-40-7 record.
Now, was that all on McGrattan? Of course not. That just wasn’t a good team, but it wasn’t supposed to be. One of the major parts of rebuilding is getting a top draft pick. The Flames got Sam Bennett for their troubles, so their efforts were, ultimately, a success.
At the same time, though, McGrattan was a part of that team for almost the entire season. He played 511 minutes in the NHL that year; his previous career high was 254. From his rookie year. Eight years prior. That still isn’t a lot of minutes at all, but for him, it was substantial, and yet, his presence on the ice didn’t really accomplish anything.
And goodbye again
While McGrattan and fellow goon Kevin Westgarth ended up being staples for the Flames’ fourth line in 2013-14, they weren’t present for 2014-15. While Westgarth departed for the greener pastures of Belfast (he scored 13 goals!), McGrattan stuck around for the final year of his contract.
He played eight games, the third lowest of his career. He spent the first half of the season a healthy scratch in the pressbox, and the second half in the AHL. His time as a Flame was essentially over; maybe even his time in the NHL.
The Flames swapped their two goons of the previous season for a different two guys – Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland – and ended up making the playoffs. They improved to 45-30-7, got a favourable matchup against the Vancouver Canucks, and made it into the second round, with Bollig and Engelland staples in the lineup.
Again, of course, the Flames’ success this season wasn’t all on McGrattan being replaced with Bollig. They both played fourth line minutes, and generally weren’t too consequential to the game. Johnny Gaudreau’s rookie season provided a far greater impact than goon swap.
You have to have more than character
In professional sports, being a nice guy certainly helps, but skill and talent are going to win out most times. We’re seeing that happen with the gradual phasing out of goons from the NHL.
Even though, by all accounts, McGrattan is a nice guy and great locker room presence, his removal from the Calgary Flames didn’t impact them at all. With him still in the room, they went 21-17-3. Without him, they went 24-13-4. Their ES CF was 44.5% in both splits. They were pretty consistent all year long, taking high percentage shots and scoring off them, while being moderately okay on the defensive end of things.
They were lucky, and swapping marginal NHLers who may or may not be cool people to hang out with did nothing to change that.
Having good character guys in the room is pretty important to hockey’s team-focused narrative. Goons are almost always described as this. They don’t play big minutes, and they don’t score goals, but they have to something. That something is always being there to stick up for their teammates.
The problem is, that’s not enough. They don’t offer anything anyone else doesn’t. (If friggin’ Mikael Backlund, who should not be getting into fights, is doing it…) Because to make it so far in a team-centric sport, chances are, most of the guys playing are pretty good character guys. It just isn’t toted as their number one quality because they do many more significant, tangible things. Like score goals, for example. Set up plays. Shelter more vulnerable players. Lots of stuff that shows on the ice and doesn’t have to resort to looking at someone’s personality to justify his spot in the lineup of a professional hockey team.
Everyone’s in roughly the same situation. They’re all going into work, and they all want to have good work days. A major part of that is getting along with the same 20 or so guys throughout the year. They’re around them constantly: practices, games, charity events, road trips. Friendships are going to form, no matter what.
If all you bring to the table is being a good friend, then you aren’t bringing enough. In a beer league, sure, absolutely. In professional sports? Someone else will be everyone’s friend, and actually contribute along the way.
By all accounts, McGrattan’s a great guy. But that isn’t enough. And the Flames didn’t miss him.
Talent is always going to win out.