The problem with “team toughness”

One hockey cliche that absolutely drives me crazy is the idea that you need "team toughness" in order to win games and it's mostly because everyone has their own definition of it. In my opinion, guys who are "tough to play against" are those who keep the puck away from their opponents, frustrate them by controlling the play and beat them on the scoreboard. However, most people's idea of "team toughness" is limited to players who are big, deliver hits and are willing to "drop the gloves" to stand up for their teammates.

Getting "tougher to play against' was a priority for the Hurricanes this off-season and aside from the Mike Komisarek signing, they haven't done too much to improve that. In fact, there have been a few people strongly against the Nathan Gerbe signing because he isn't "big or gritty enough" to play in the bottom-six here. Personally, I hate the idea that you need to be a "gritty" player to play in the bottom-six because other teams have gone against that and it worked out fine for them.

Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks of last season, who were icing a fourth line of Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg in the Stanley Cup Finals. Neither of them are guys I would consider "tough" or "gritty" but they are all good hockey players who made the most of their ice time. They killed penalties, played well defensively and were able to keep the puck in the opposing team's offensive zone while contribution some secondary scoring on top of that. This is what you need out of a bottom-six, not just guys who can hit. There's nothing wrong with adding toughness to your bottom-six, but they need to be able to contribute outside of that if they want to be effective. 

The whole issue of adding "team toughness' is nothing new for the Hurricanes because it feels like they've gone through this debate every off-season. Last year, everyone was obsessed with adding an enforcer to help "protect" Jeff Skinner. Nevermind that enforcers do little to "protect" players in today's NHL and few of them play more than nine shifts a game. Playing an enforcer in today's NHL almost leaves your team shorthanded because of how sparingly they are used. Despite this, the Hurricanes decided to give up three assets for Kevin Westgarth for the Kings before the season started. Everyone thought that the team needed someone like him to prevent other team's goons from taking runs at Skinner & their other stars. 

That never happened. Skinner ended up taking two big hits last year, one of which giving him a concussion, and Westgarth responded only after the hit happened. This is neither Westgarth or Muller's fault because no coach is ever going to use their enforcer with one of their stars so they are rarely going to be out there to "protect" them. Even if they were on the ice at the same time, it would do little to prevent other players from taking runs at him. Playing on the team as Shawn Thornton and the same line as Milan Lucic did nothing to protect Marc Savard from a blindside hit by Matt Cooke. What makes you think that adding more "tough guys" will protect Skinner? Sadly, there are always going to be guys like Raffi Torres, Matt Cooke and Chris Neil who take runs at your star players and adding an enforcer or another physical player to lineup counter it is not going to stop them.

Still, adding "team toughness" has been the mantra this off-season because fans are tired of seeing the Canes being "pushed around." I can understand that because it's frustrating to watch when the team is losing. The problem I have with wanting to get tougher is if people start clamoring for the Canes to add "tough" players for the sake of it. This is a strategy that has rarely worked out well for other teams and I can't see the Hurricanes having success with it, especially if it involves benching or trading a more skilled player for a "gritty guy who adds toughness and sandpaper to the lineup."

Let's recall the moves the Buffalo Sabres made last summer. Tired of having other players, specifically those on the Boston Bruins, push them around, they decided to beef up their roster by trading Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars in exchange for agitating forward Steve Ott and defenseman Adam Pardy. They also signed forward John Scott to add some size to their roster and he has plenty of that at 6'8" and 270 lbs. The Sabres were indeed a tougher club last season and no one pushed around their star players. They were also an awful hockey team.

Buffalo's new "tougher" roster finished in the bottom-ten of the NHL standings and dead last in the Northeast Division. They were also one of the worst defensive teams in the league and had some horrific puck-possession numbers. No one pushed them around, but they also barely had the puck and spent 60-65% of games playing in their own end at even strength. Some of Buffalo's players may have underperformed, but a lot of this was predictable. They traded away someone who was their top-line center for years for a "tougher" player who would be a third line center on a contending team. Buffalo was also regularly using a lineup spot for Scott, who played 5-6 minutes a game and got lit up defensively during those minutes. But hey, at least no one pushed them around. 

Also guilty of this are the Edmonton Oilers, who have been at the bottom of the NHL for a good part of the last five years. After cutting ties with enforcers Zack Stortini, JF Jacques & Steve McIntyre a few years ago, they continued to invest in "tough guys" by giving a three-year contract to Ben Eager, signing Darcy Hordichuk twice and trading for Toronto Maple Leafs fourth liner, Mike Brown. All of these players add toughness, but they are also liabilities on the ice in every area but physical play. The Oilers have filled their bottom-six with guys like this for years and it's one reason why they've been one of the worst teams in the league over the last four or five years. The Oilers were "tougher" and had a different look but they were still a bad team and that's all that mattered.

I don't disagree with the notion that Carolina needs to get tougher, but if it means benching or moving a player to make room for a "tough guy," then this isn't the direction the team should go in. People say that they need to add protection for Skinner or add a "body crushing" defenseman to help Cam Ward. You know what would really help Ward? Adding more forwards who can keep the play out of his own zone so he doesn't have to see 30+ shots a night. That would help a lot more than someone who is useless with the puck on his stick and serves no purpose other than to bang bodies.

In the end, you want to ice the best team possible and committing a roster space and playing time to someone who can only contribute physically isn't going to accomplish that. This all goes back to fundamentals because the main goal in hockey is to outscore the opposition, which is done by possessing the puck, getting it into the offensive zone and getting shots on net. It's up to the front office to assemble a team who can effectively do this on a nightly basis and it shouldn't matter if their bottom-six is filled with big, physical players or smaller, faster more skilled players. If they can get the job done, then they should be welcomed on any NHL club.

Unfortunately, a lot of teams let good players fall out of their hands because they want to get "tougher" and they end up icing a worse product as a result. Thankfully, the Hurricanes haven't done anything to drastically effect this and let's hope it stays that way over the next couple of months. Puck possession and territorial play are what wins hockey games, not hits, fighting and "toughness."

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