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Measuring Up the Sandpaper: A Preliminary Look at Grit, Toughness, and the Nashville Predators

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What is “grit,” anyway? No, not grits, we know what those are.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that gets said after every NHL season that doesn’t end in a Stanley Cup win is that the team in question was missing something—heart, toughness, hunger, grit, willpower, experience. They lost because they “didn’t want it enough,” even if they had a key player playing through a debilitating injury or out entirely.

Intangibles and Tangibles

You can’t measure any of these things, but GMs do consider some of them while signing. You’ll rarely see a GM getting a player who “wants it enough” (though something like the Blackhawks’ trade for Kimmo Timonen might qualify there), maybe because that’s the kind of thing people only point out in its presumed absence, but GMs will openly seek out players for the veteran experience those players bring (the Washington “lose every Game 7” Capitals’ signing of Justin “Mr. Game 7” Williams is a fantastically on-the-nose example).

They’ll also acquire players who bring the grit and toughness they feel will make their team harder to play against. “We need to get tougher,” they’ll say. “We were too easy to play against. He plays with a lot of grit and we like that about his game.”

What is grit, though, and does it help a NHL team at all?

This is a serious question.

If you say your team needs a player who can score like Alex Ovechkin, everyone knows what you mean (and also, you’re probably out of luck, because Ovechkin is the greatest goalscorer of the modern era). A goal is a countable, unambiguous event. Lights go off and a loud noise plays every time a goal is scored, and having more goals than the other team at the end of the game means you’ve won it.

If you say your team needs a player who can stop other people from scoring like Dominik Hašek, everyone knows what you mean, even if they’re likely to get into an argument about who the greatest goalie of the modern era really is. Goaltenders make saves. Good goaltenders save most of the pucks they face, including some of the ones they shouldn’t.

(Great goaltenders, like great goalscorers, also leave people wondering how they can even beat them. The story about Max Pacioretty, at the 2014 Winter Olympics, telling his Team USA teammates that “if you have to shoot on [Carey Price], maybe shoot blocker” is delightfully engraved in my memory. That’s subjective too, though, in a way that stopping X shots in a given night isn’t.)

What is a great defender? We don’t know. We seriously don’t. This is one of the major problems with the Norris Trophy, because it’s given to a player who’s the best at doing...something we’ve barely defined. Some people look at points, some people look at blocked shots, some people try to figure out what didn’t happen with that player on the ice. Defense, unlike scoring goals or saving shots, is a lot harder to measure.

#Grit

The same is true of grit and toughness, which I’ll refer to from here on out just as “grit” in order to save space. The idea means different things to different people, and that makes it harder to say whether adding grit—without any further definition—is a good plan or a bad plan.

NHL: Stadium Series-Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers
“Are you about to say my name not just three times but approximately thirty? WheeeEEEEEE!!!”
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

I might say Viktor Arvidsson or Rocco Grimaldi is a gritty player, for example—they’re resilient and determined, and find themselves pushing through challenging situations on the ice a lot. Most NHL teams would definitely be improved by adding a spare Arvidsson or Grimaldi (no, you can’t have ours, thanks, clone your own).

Someone like Ryan Hartman, who draws penalties at a fantastic rate by goading his opponents into a red-hazed fury, is probably gritty. Same for his former Blackhawks teammate Andrew Shaw, whose laser-targeted provocation of Shea Weber during the 2015 series helped cost the Predators Game 1, moved me to a mix of incoherent anger and grudging admiration, and, oh yeah, got one of Shaw’s ribs broken. Hartman is a solid hockey player who was underutilized in Nashville, while Shaw is a lot better than he gets credit for.

Of those four players, Hartman is the largest—at six feet even—while Arvidsson clocks in at 5’9”, Grimaldi at 5’6”, and Shaw at an alleged 5’11” (please note: that is a lie). Can you be gritty and short at the same time?

No, really: can you?

You can definitely be tall and not gritty—Patrik Laine is 6’5” and the complaint about him tends to be that he’s too Finnish—but where does the line get drawn? How much does height matter compared to everything else, and how much does weight affect that?

Ryan Johansen, one of the Preds’ largest skaters, probably wouldn’t be described as gritty. Neither would Mattias Ekholm. Brian Boyle, however, was signed specifically to add grit, which he does either by being a very large human or by having earned a Masterton Trophy.

I’d like to look at the Predators’ grit players and see what they actually bring to the table, but in order to do that we need to figure out who those grit players are. In order for it to be a meaningful concept, it can’t just mean “bad at hockey.” When we mean someone is bad at hockey, we need to be able to say that, instead of calling them gritty—and if we’re talking about a specific aspect of someone’s play which could have value, we need to be able to do that too.

Defining Grit

Is a gritty player someone who hits a lot? Probably it’s also someone who takes a lot of penalties (but not puck-over-glass, and definitely not embellishment). Some part of grit seems to be about wearing down the opponent, not so much like sandpaper as like sand in the engine—does it have to do with matchups and zone starts?

Some of it is also about going to the front of the net, where Boyle and Wayne Simmonds live on the power play, and doing the dirty work to get the dirty goals. (Don’t mix dirty goals up with filthy goals, which are rarely anything to do with grit.)

And some of it is probably about making physical sacrifices to try to get the desired outcome. Grit is diligently killing penalties, enduring in the defensive zone. Gritty players block shots. Do they draw penalties, like Hartman and Shaw? I think that should count—it’s the same idea, experiencing pain in order to get an advantage.

Over to you with a poll and an open question, and I’ll be using your definitions and nominations to take another look at what the Predators’ grittiest players bring to the table shortly.

Poll

Which is the most important or relevant aspect of grit/toughness/etc. as a useful concept (not just as a euphemism for "bad")?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Hitting
    (38 votes)
  • 0%
    Taking penalties
    (1 vote)
  • 22%
    Shutdown role (at even strength)
    (40 votes)
  • 28%
    Netfront play in the offensive zone (screens/tips)
    (49 votes)
  • 1%
    Usage on the penalty kill
    (3 votes)
  • 10%
    Blocking shots
    (18 votes)
  • 4%
    Drawing penalties
    (7 votes)
  • 10%
    Other
    (18 votes)
174 votes total Vote Now

The question is, of course, who do you think the Preds’ grittiest player this season was? (I was going to make a poll, but 34 separate skaters dressed for at least one game with the team, and at that point I might as well have included the goalies too.)