The truth about character

With the draft coming up on Sunday there has been a lot of talk about the type of players the Oilers should draft. Rookie general manager Craig MacTavish has said he is very interested in acquiring more skill through the draft. I wonder if that is the best approach to build a winning team.

I can’t argue that the most important asset a hockey player can have is skill. Without it he will not be able to play at a high level even if he possesses all the other requirements of a NHL player.

In my opinion a very, very close second is character. Skill without character is useless. I would rather have a player with character and less skill then the other way around. I think there is misconception of what character means in a hockey player.

Too often I hear that a team can "just pick a character player up on waivers when they need one". I love it. It makes it sounds like they are going down to the mall to pick up a black pair of shoes that will make a whole outfit work! Makes zero sense to me.

Yes there are players who are referred to as "character players". It seems to me that these are players that do some of the dirtier tasks for a team. Blocking shots, finishing checks, killing penalties and fighting are examples of what people who are "character players" do for teams.

These are important elements to have on a winning club. However, if a team is hoping that these types of players are enough character for a whole team they are kidding themselves.

Players with character vs. character players

Photo: Resolute/Wikimedia Commons

Players with character are required throughout the line-up.

Unfortunately it is pretty hard to quantify character with stats. I guess you could look at blocked shots and hits but to me that just points at the types of players that are often referred to as "character players". How do you figure out if the rest of your players have character who aren’t big on those two stats?

We just saw a perfect example in this Stanley Cup Final. Jonathan Toews put on a clinic on what character is all about. The Hawks were having trouble getting to the net with the Bruins line-up of bigger defensemen and centers.

They were having trouble with it because they didn’t want to pay the price in the first few games of the series. Would you want to try and go to the net when a mountain of a nasty man is standing between you and the net? You could literally see the change in the Hawks mindset in the last few games of the series.

Toews led the charge by going right at the Bruins captain, Zdeno Chara. No longer was Toews going to let Chara dictate how he or his team was going to play. How many times did you see the smaller Toews battling with the much bigger Chara for loose pucks in the corners and front of the net in the last two games of the series? All the time!

He didn’t do it because he was trying to get on the stat sheet with hits, he did it because he knew that in order to win he had to battle the biggest and best the Bruins had to offer. He couldn’t avoid it. His character shined through.

He did what was needed to win even though he knew the effort and pain that were required.

That is character. He isn’t a "character player.” He is a player with character.

Skilled players go through highs and lows of scoring goals. No NHL players score every night. If a skilled player is having an off night or is struggling scoring what are they contributing to the team’s success?

Skilled players with character find ways of helping the team during the lows of a season. They are very solid defensively at those times. Skate and attack the net to create opportunities for others. They become a part of the team’s overall success even when they are not having individual success.

At the Draft

Photo: Alexander Laney/Wikimedia Commons

It is clear to me that the Oilers need to add more players with character to their line-up this off season. The first chance they get is this weekend at the draft in New Jersey. Drafting players solely based on skill is not a recipe for success in my opinion.

It is not easy to identify character in draft eligible players. These guys are very young and their games are in full development mode but that is the challenge for scouting staffs across the NHL.

I know many teams look at players away from the rink. What is their lifestyle? How do they treat their billets (for junior-aged players) and teachers (for college players)? Do they put forth effort in off-ice training? Are they responsive to coaching? These are all questions that scouts try to get answered when they are pushing for their team to draft a specific player.

I think a great question to have answered would be this… what does the player do when no one is watching?

I want to know if he does extra after practice on the ice. Is he a guy that is working on his game without being asked? Is he a guy that watches video to improve? Is he a guy that goes to the gym without being asked or prodded?

These are the attributes I saw during my career in players that not only played in the NHL but contributed in a meaningful way to the success of a team on and off the ice.

Don’t ever underestimate the value of character in a player. It is a hair under skill in my opinion.

  • I think Struds is onto something. Look at the team now:

    FORWARDS:

    Hall: high skill with high character
    Nuge: high skill with high character
    Eberle: high skill with high character
    Hemsky: high skill with low character
    Horcoff: low skill with high character
    Gagner: high skill with high character
    Yakupov: high skill with high character
    Smyth: low/med skill with high character
    Jones: low skill with high character
    Paajarvi: high skill with medium character (yet growing)
    Petrell: low skill and med. character
    Smithson: low skill (except faceoffs) with mediocre character
    Brown: low skill with high character
    Belanger: low skill with medicore character
    Eager: low skill (except speed) and low character

    DEFENSE:

    Petry: medium skill (improving) and high character
    J.Schultz: high skill and medium character
    N.Schultz: medium skill and high character
    Smid: low/med. skill and high character
    Fistric: low skill and medium character
    Potter: med. skill and med. character
    Whitney: med./high skill and low character

    • Time Travelling Sean

      Character is subjective. Saying Hemsky has high skill low character is just that. I know all the reasons why people say this and its being used to ship the guy outta town.

      My arguement is against you is this. Guy chose Edmonton and all the media spotlight for 12 years, and has never said a disconcerting word even though hes been scapegoated, called soft and selfish. Guy played here with whatever inadaquate teamates they put on his line, went into the corners against Rhegier ever shift. I remember not only did he take hits you or I could not take, he delivered shots to Rhegier. Wonder why his shoulder are made of “glass.” He endured media and coaches questioning his work ethic saying he could be better, while he battled injuries. He sign not one but two contracts to live in Edmonton. One he was underpaid for 6 years. Took countless insults for getting what he was due on the last contract to make up for years of being underpaid. He chose to sign the second ocontract during a rebuild, cause he wanted to be part of the solution. Last season he was the one of the best players during the first half, scoring game winners. Played the second half on a broken foot no less while taking more criticism from the media and fans. Watched his team tank after he left, was no coincidence, the team struggles always in his absence. and predictably fell out of the hunt.

      On my 2014 he stays. I’ll take his quiet shy demeanour any day. He did not get that good because he is lazy. Maybe you could argue he could be a better leader, I argue let him be what he is a quiet deternined guy.

      • crobar

        two things to look at when assessing character.
        1— ask former (not current) team mates. the same names will come up all the time.
        2—- does he draw alot of penalties and then sit on the bench for his teammates to bulge the twine.

        2 outta two here is a keeper. and hey struds, you know who these guys are. call it out!!

      • GVBlackhawk

        I agree Smokey, Hemmer represents a key 3rd liner to me, he is an elite zone entry specialist who has 1st line value on some teams.

        Just keeping Hemmer and building a line around him with two beasts who can take and hold the front of the net would give us solid tertiary scoring which we dearly need. I would send Hemmer in all night long and just let him pass out front to the beasts. Simple yet very effective because you KNOW Hemmer is getting the pass there no matter what.

        Ralph never utilised Hemmer this way because he thought he was better applied with more skill players, WRONG, he is a specialist and needs to be a line catalyst to be at his elite best, he is a jumpy thoroughbred and he actually dominates puck possesion time and takes away from skilled linemates. Minutes are less impactfull on his production than dynamiclly matched linemates because he is a one shot scorer who also makes good passes at a very high %.

        No bones about it though, his main focus has to be the third line with upside when needed, no negotiating with him on that.

        Lets not assume Hemsky would accept 3rd line minutes, he is in his prime.

        It kills me that Ralph refused to put Hemmer on the 3rd line last year when we needed him there to score goals and feed Smyth and Horcs in front.

        Smyth-Horcoff-Hemsky is a Championship 3rd line.

        Mac-T will make the best moves for the teams present state of affairs, he is responsible and well schooled, I trust him.

        I dont undervalue Hemsky one bit if he is uesd in the exact role he can provide optimal impact in. Lets not kid ourselves, he is not as big a risk as people think and has been loyal as old hell. All we need to do is lose one kid to injury next year and we will be fubared without Hemmer, especially if it is another zone entry specialist. That would leave us with just one.

        • Crispy

          Glad you’ve been watching your character count. You’ve definitely had a lot more characters in the past.

          I guess the Oilers want character players, but ON needs posters with a bit less characters some times.

          • Mark-LW

            I dont feel the need to expand as much these days. Some things grow wings of their own.

            I was at a southdise Tims the other day and i head the words NewAge Hockey System Guy.

            End of transmission.

        • Aitch

          Very very well said. We need Hemmer. And if he does go I hope we don’t treat other players like we treated him. Sad to see after all his loyalty, he’s being banished by 90% of Edmonton. If Hemmer stays I hope he has a stellar year and silences some of his critics.

        • GVBlackhawk

          Your right. Its why Penner and him worked well. Penner knew how to.go to the net with Hemsky, and how to.find the right spots. Even Horcoff and Smyth learned that. Hemsky not a give and.go player, its kinda been his downfall. Theres more then one way to skin a cat, and Hemsky provides a dimension that will sorely be lacking in the future.

  • I sense some anti Canadian bias here . tikkanen and Kurri were no slouches neither Ovechkin and a bunch . I’d say Risto will also fit the bill and the skill to match it . Nicushkin none of you know enough about him to render a negative opinion . He looked fine in international play .

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Wonder if Dustin Penner falls into the desired “character” category.

    Edmonton might want to bark up that tree if he would consider coming back here. With increased minutes, he could get back to that 50 pt plateau. The Oilers are looking for bigger guys who “can play” 15 mins+ a night aren’t they? Edmonton could sure use a player with 2 Stanley Cups to his credit in that dressing room. He’d probably even come at a reasonable price.

    Outside of Taylor Hall. There’d be absolutely nothing standing in his way to becoming the Oilers 2nd line left winger. Let Eakins have a go with him and see what happens.

    • oliveoilers

      First of all, @ Struds; nice to have insight from player’s perspective. Who indeed will answer the call when the chips are down? I woner what prompted your article? Perhaps you have caught on to the Samwise bashing and the heralding of Penner as the second coming?

      @Shock and Awe: I understand where you are coming from. We can get him cheap and, in his limited way, he contributes. But a few of caveats:

      1. Even on my 2-bit beer league team with players that support every team, Penner is recognised as a lazy player. That is universal, one of the few things they all agree on! Small demograph i know, but a decent sampling.

      2. What do you want from Penner? The big body presence. He doesn’t use it. His production? We have better junior players, or can trade for cheaper.

      3. People liken him to Lucic because yes, he has the tools, plus better hands. However, Lucic does not disappear in games when they don’t go his way. They figure; “holy that guy has size and skill! That was a weak play.”

      4. And finally, (I’m almost done, I promise!) he is actually very bad in the dressing room. And that is a DSF ‘Book it’ straight from the mouths of a few oiler’s horses. Especially the guy he used to basically bully with ‘smelly’ and ‘caveman’ comments.

    • 2004Z06

      Penner may be a character, but as a hockey player he doesn’t have any. He doesn’t do any if the things JS mentioned. All day long your advocating bringing Penner back. You were incorrect about his stats earlier, now your trying to imply he has character? Why do you want him back so bad? Did you discover a kick ass recipe for chocolate chip pancakes or something?

      • Quicksilver ballet

        Either your calculator is busted, or you failed Math 25 there junior. Just because some other idiot said it was incorrect, doesn’t mean he’s correct. You both need to work on your math.

        Try again, three shots for a quarter perhaps?

        • OilClog

          I’ll refrain from the name calling, I’m a little too mature to be an Internet hero. Please re-read our previous conversation with Mr Davis in the previous article. In this article we are discussing character, which you made no mention of in your reply.

          As per your calculator comment, re-read your statement about Penners stats you Moron (I changed my mind) a calculator is not needed to read words.

  • 50 in 39

    Best article you have written so far……..hit the nail right on the head. The NHL garbage pile is littered with skilled players with limited character.

    I for one would not draft a player if that player has never demonstrated character…….the best people to judge character are fellow players, past and present. Most often the character players have the “C” or “A” on their jersey but not always.

    Darnell Nurse seems to have this as does Monahan…….Nichuskin not as much, but asking fellow players on his team may shed some light?

      • 50 in 39

        I think it’s due to the fact a couple of professional scouts have mentioned this……..coming into the combines with limited preparations.

        Not sure how much of this is true……hard to read Russian hockey players except maybe Yakupov could help?

        • Some of the scouts asked a certian question and didn’t like the response.

          Then labled him difficult, ignorant and arrogant

          Only to find out on two occasions that the question was lost in-translation.

          I think given the opportunity to play with a friend and a Russian without the lost translation you will see a different person.

          Edit: I also find it funny that Barkov said almost the same things and had very short one word answers, nobody said boo about that?

          • GVBlackhawk

            Just to be straight……….I for one would take Nichuskin on this team every day of the week!

            It’s hard to defend against 6′ 5″ power forwards that skate like he does!

          • Bonvie

            Yeah Mhinkov was awesome for us he was really hard to Defend a dynamite steal in the first round. I would be more upset with the Oilers wasting a pick on an enigma like this Nikushkin then I was the day they decided they would hire Krueger. If the oilers want a big Russian they should target Slepshev in the 2nd round. Stick to Barkov, Monohan, Nurse, the Swedish centre or the Finish Dman. I can’t think of an example even when a player slipped in rankings because of character issues and the team grabbing him didn’t get burned. If several GMs and scouts have issues stay clear.

          • This isn’t the 1990’s anymore, these kids are scrutinized right down to the finest detail.

            There are really no more surprises anymore, you know what your buying right off the lot.

            My guess is that if a team passes on Nichuskin it’s because they went the safe route or need.

            But for the three or four scouts that say Nichuskin has issues there are ten credible scouts saying he’s the real deal top three or four player.

            P.S Barkov Russian bro.

          • Bonvie

            A good indicator of what the scouts see, is when they chose to pass over the pick. Angelo Espisito is one of the latest guys I remember falling during the draft, your right about breaking down these interviews all questions asked are relevant certain questions are asked just to defeat the possibility of the candidate trying to give the right answer or the answer he suspects that the interviewer wants. I am not sure how much experience or knowledge you have in hiring within corporations, or interviewing in general but I am positive almost every team has guys that know this field well.

            Where there is smoke there is fire!!

          • Good points.

            I have had extensive interviews both being the interviewed and the interviewer.

            Esposito was passed over because he just wasn’t all that good.

            Nichuskin if he gets passed over is because teams have concerns about being a flight risk, coming out and saying you want to play for Philadelphia also doesn’t help, but if you can get past the immaturity of the kid, he’s a top talent.

            For the record, I’m a conservative guy when it comes to picks, I want the best player, but I want the best player that’s a safe pick, if you know what I mean?

            So ya, I’d prefer, Monahan, Lindholm and Barkov.

  • 50 in 39

    Jonathan Toews is a perfect example of this coveted type of player. I felt like Bickell gave his best attempt to be physical with Chara early in the finals. A few games into the finals you could see in his face that he had grown wary of the big Bruin. Bickell was still playing Chara physical but he looked like he had backed off to me. That is the nastiest mood I have seen Chara play with in a couple years, must have been the injuries. But Toews stepped in there and set the tone for his team. He knew what was waiting for him and took it like a top quality leader and showed the Blackhawks the way.

  • 15w40

    Well then I’m guessing that @Struds1260 would be leaving Nichushkin in the rear view if he was available then??

    He definitely isn’t getting the character individual of the year votes right now that’s for sure.

  • ON nation understands the value of character very well , seeing as we have had so many over the years. Yes , we have been lagging in that department for quite some years now especially during regular season play . Similar to golf – you drive for show (regular season) and putt for dough (the playoff season) . Getting even the best to show that consistent level during regular season is very hard . Penner as an example being more a playoff performer , and Hemsky not seemingly getting to next level . We do need more consistency no doubt , but that also comes from coaching motivating players to play more consistently at a higher level . Pride is a strong motivator .

  • Aitch

    Character without the necessary skills is a deathwish for a team. Tambo brought back all the character guys from a 30th place year and they rewarded him by hardly ever producing anything at the offensive end of the ice.

    While you may not want jerks (off the ice) on your team, we’ve seen what the Oilers are capable of when they’re filled with character guys with borderline NHL skills. It’s not pretty.

    • What character guys did he bring back?

      I would argue the only guys that have enough character or compete on the team are Hall, Smid, Eberle, and Gagner. Fistric and Smyth could be added to that group if id they stay.

      The vets that Tambs kept bringing back were once descent players who have lost the compete or character that once made them good.

      • Aitch

        Petrell, hordichuk, smyth, anyone else who was a part of the 10-11 team that finished 29th and could’ve left via free agency. The only changes Tambo made was to add Yakupov and Schultz. So, I’d argue they thought they had the character.

      • G Money

        I think you have to add RNH (who played sturdy consistent two-way game all season despite a broken wing) and Yak (who played like he loves the game each and every night) to that list.

        Every one of these guys has shown that desire to win and willingness to sacrifice through their entire careers, part of what made them #1 picks.

        Which is a great problem to have, because I do believe that we have the luxury of having a team where our key elite skill guys (Hall, Ebs, RNH, Ganye, Yak) ARE character guys.

        Now we need to build that character on the 3/4 lines.

        Where I’m worried is the rest of our D lineup. We know Schultz Jr and Petry have all kinds of skill, but are they “character” guys?

  • Mark-LW

    “Unfortunately it is pretty hard to quantify character with stats.”

    If character is a useful trait for players of hockey teams then they should show in underlying possession stats such as corsi or fenwick.

    If a player just has something you subjectively call “character” but gets killed in chances for/against then of what use is said “character”

    • Jason Strudwick

      You are right there are no stats to back this up other then all the Stanley cup champions since the NHL started. Everyone one of those teams had players with character. Right now I can’t remember their Corsi ratings though?

      • Bonvie

        I’m sorry, but I missed the team that had no character players at all.

        The problem with this argument is that it’s a narrative predicated on success. When does a player have his character questioned? When he performs below expectations, reasonable or not. When does a player have his character praised? When he performs above expectations. There’s also a bias towards gritty players, and players who succeed despite less size, because that seems to lower expectations.

        Why does San Jose have its character questioned constantly? It’s simply because the line-up seems to suggest they should have one cup in the past eight seasons. Detroit and Chicago? Consistent success, cup victories in the past decade, and those are teams that have better “character”.

        I guarantee, if San Jose had somehow won in 2010 and 2013 instead of Chicago, we’d all be questioning Chicago’s character right now.

        I’m not saying character has no value–what I am saying is that our assessment is so hopelessly subjective, that it ultimately doesn’t help to chase after it. Steve Tambellini made character, however he assessed that, a priority, and that backfired badly. Probably because you have to, as a GM, look at end results, and not worry so much about how much is natural talent versus the result of having great character.

        Granted, because you’re dealing with such unproven kids at the draft, you have to do background work on the kids… But even the, I think you’re just looking for major red flags. Like if a kid was abused by his father, or something, you might rank him a little lower than you would otherwise.

        • Mark-LW

          “Granted, because you’re dealing with such unproven kids at the draft, you have to do background work on the kids… But even the, I think you’re just looking for major red flags. Like if a kid was abused by his father, or something, you might rank him a little lower than you would otherwise.”

          Come on you are better than this comment.

          What an insensiive, politiclly incorrect things to say, as inaccurate as old hell, have you by chance heard of a Man named Fluery? A Pro Athlete who faced monumentel challenges and turned that painfull past into curative actions on the ice and became an NHL Superstar against all concievable odds?

          A man who has managed to get to any Professional level sport while facing challenges of this magnitude would obviously be ranked higher than a man who hasnt shown his mettle.

          I once heard a rumor that high level Columbian Cocain dealers in the 70s ran tight ships and if you hadnt already been hooked on coke and then re-habbed sucessfully to prove you were the Master of it they COULD NOT and would not hire you. You were to great a risk. I adhere to that philosophy, a man who has already been tempered by life earlier than his peers is made of a different metal entirely. You have no gaurantee that ANY other un-tempered blade sharp as it may be wont break under pressure, a tempered blade will outperfom everything else.

      • GVBlackhawk

        Just to play Devil’s Advocate here:

        The teams who lost in the Cup finals also had players with ‘character’. There are teams who don’t make the playoffs who have players with a ton of character.

  • striatic

    So Struds in your opinon do you think the oiler on the character issue should draft Nurse over Nicushkin forgive spelling if wrong,if they are the players left when they are at podium and the centers are gone?

    • Jason Strudwick

      I have never met either player and only seen sine highlights of their play on YouTube. That being said I would choose nurse. If he continues to develop as expected he could be a stud on the blue line for a long time

  • northof51

    Good article Struds. I know it sounds stupid, but even “beer league” teams suffer without character. I think a lot of that is confidence, as with the Toews situation. Character guys don’t just try to do things on the ice, they do them!