Thursday, February 24, 2011

What does "grit" mean in hockey?

Or... Don't trade for Chris Neil

Grit, moxie, truculence, character, "The Will of the Warrior", these are all words and terms that are thrown around at this time of year when the NHL trading deadline picks up steam. Otherwise unassuming players like David Clarkson, Marty Reasoner or, duh, Chris Neil get thrown around in potential trades on message boards, blog posts and radio stations.

It's a simple formula. A winning team is one that has the right combination of talent and grit, but nobody is really sure what defines a gritty player. The primetime television media definition that I can best use to define a player as such is any guy, preferably North American, who has fluked himself onto one or two playoff teams in his past and may have scored an overtime goal.

(Imagine a situation where Sidney Crosby's shot on Ryan Miller gets turned aside, as it would 90% of the time. Then imagine an American shot eludes Luongo. Instead of being a 'winner' and proprietor of the greatest moment in Canadian sporting history, Crosby is known as another loser who didn't step up when it really counted for Canada.)

The clincher for me here is the drive-by analysis that's been handed out to the Vancouver Canucks. Apparently, the Canucks are this season's Washington Capitals, or the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres in the post-lockout years; a flashy team with a lot of scoring but doesn't have the right pieces to win in the playoffs.

Two things are in play here. One is that the Canucks are, in the end, better at the other end of the ice than the Capitals, and the second is that, offensively, the Canucks are shooting at a more sustainable 10.3% to lead the league in goals than the Capitals were last year at 11.5%. Fact is, a lot of things have to go right for any team to win, not just the ones who put up high shooting percentages.

What stopped the Caps last year wasn't that they didn't have the grit to compete against the Montreal Canadiens, it was that their bounces didn't come at the right times, but, despite a team shooting percentage of just 7.5%, they managed to outscore the Habs in the series 22-20. Remember that, at the start of the third period in Game 7, Alexander Ovechkin took a shot that should have tied the game:

That should have been Ovechkin's sixth goal of the series, hardly a total you'd expect from a captain who doesn't have the "grit" to compete or lead a team anywhere.

Players train so much and have played for so long that, to be effective, you can't get on along with just talent anymore. The rare guys who don't give it their all every game do get singled out, like Alex Kovalev, because they aren't effective when they play (Kovalev has a relative Corsi rating of -7.7 despite favourable quality of competition, teammate and zone start statistics)

Don't get my picture of grit mixed up with toughness. A lot of board battles and net battles do require strength and will, but winning those battles does tend to factor into the advanced stats that we keep an eye on throughout the season. You win a battle, you set up a shot, and they do add up. But there's no reason to make a point to get the players who get into a lot of those battles with varying degrees of success. At the end of the day, you want the players who generate shots for your team, whether its by winning battles, or by a playing pond hockey style with no-contact. The same rules apply in the playoffs as the regular season, and no team should let a few wayward bounces dictate their style or their strategy going into the playoffs.

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