46

Let me say this about that…

On the record and off, former Edmonton Oilers’ tough guy Georges Laraque has never been shy about saying what he thinks. On the bus. In the dressing room. These days, on the air as a radio host in Montreal. Georges has always been good for an unfiltered take, a laugh, a juicy quote or an ear-grabbing sound bite.

It’s no surprise, then, that Laraque had some ears burning Friday during a 20-minute segment he did on 630 CHED with Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer. What started as a discussion about Milan Lucic and the uneven first season he had with the Oilers evolved into Laraque taking a jab at media members and bloggers – specifically “analytics-based writers” — who, in BG’s opinion, underestimate the impact of having toughness in the line-up. That part of the conversation begins at the 11-minute mark.

That prompted David Staples over at the Cult of Hockey at the Edmonton Journal to write an item tagged “Shots Fired.” Listen to the interview for full context or read the Staples item, but here are the juicy snippets from Laraque.

“You said some of the people in the media they don’t like tough guys, and they say stuff, ‘They don’t like it, we don’t believe in this and that.’ This is the trend between people that know the game and people that don’t know the game. There’s many people in the media that cover the game that talk about hockey and stuff but they don’t know anything. And you read them and they want to make it look like they do, but they don’t.”

Laraque continued by pointing out Connor McDavid’s 100-point season, the improvement of the Oilers in the standings and the relative health of the team, citing the presence of big, tough players like Lucic and Patrick Maroon as a significant factor. “They should be talking about the results . . . we’re not even talking about fighting here. We’re talking about a presence that prevents guys from taking cheap shots because they know there would be retribution if they did so.”

THE WAY I SEE IT

Like I said, I always get a kick out of what Georges has to say, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything that comes out of his mouth. That holds true here. When it comes to the spectrum of people who observe and then talk or write about hockey, there’s plenty of diversity. You can’t broad-brush everybody who leans more toward the eyeball test, nor can you do likewise with those who lean more heavily on analytics.

In this case, though, I think there’s some truth in what Laraque said. Unless my eyes and ears have been deceiving me, the value of toughness has been disregarded or downplayed by many, not all, of those in the analytics crowd – in the face of what’s been said by those who play the game. Players say, “There’s value in having toughness in the line-up.” A lot of analytics guys say, “Prove it.” That in itself isn’t unfair. But what’s the measure in proving it? Results the next shift, the next period, the next game? Over the course of a season? That’s a fair debate and is ongoing.

There’s plenty of room in the game for intimidation – anybody who doesn’t believe that just isn’t paying attention. The days of dressing a four-minute-a-night hammer to provide it by dropping the gloves and bending noses are long gone. Having functional toughness, guys like Lucic, Maroon and Zack Kassian, who can play the game and play minutes makes a difference. We saw it with the Oilers this season. Intimidation can take many forms – a big hit, the willingness to stand up for one another and, yes, sometimes something as straightforward as a punch in the mouth.

There are no absolutes. Any old-schooler who says the threat of swift and sure fistic or physical retribution guarantees opponents won’t take cheap shots is talking through their backside. Some guys, now and then, are going to run around no matter what. Any numbers guy who says, “Hey, so-and-so got cheap-shotted and injured and their team had this-or-that tough guy, so that proves there’s little or no value in toughness” is doing likewise. Again, there are no absolutes.

THE BOTTOM LINE

I’ve changed my view of fighting a fair amount over the last 10 years, but a lot of that change has been prompted by what we’ve learned about the long-term impact of concussions and multiple traumas to the brain.  I’m living with the results of same and I’ve talked about that on Jason Gregor’s show and written about it on this site. That’s a whole other subject. The bottom line is fighting is on its way out, and has been for a long time, in the NHL.

In the end, what I know or think I know about the subject of toughness and intimidation as they pertain to what’s happening on the ice in the NHL today takes a backseat to what those directly involved in the game tell us. If a GM like Peter Chiarelli or a coach like Todd McLellan or a player says there’s value in it, I’ll take their word for it. We are all welcome to our opinions, of course, but to think your gut or your numbers trump that is folly.

RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE  

      • FISTO Siltanen

        This 100x.

        Lucic can’t afford big statistical drop offs but if he gives this team the leadership he brought here from the beginning to the end this will remain a solid signing. His opening night fight against Engelland set the tone for this season. I think like Sekars from year one to year two I expect a similar jump from Lucic.

  • Jordan88

    Fighting may be leaving the NHL but I don’t think its a good thing. I believe the belief of mutually assured destruction is needed on the ice. Say what you want about concussions but how many players have left the ice concussed after a fight? How many former enforcers are battered and bruised yet have no mental inhibitions from a life time of pugilism? How many star forwards have been taken off the ice from hard hits? Crosby, Stamkos, McDavid, Hall. The speed of the game is what is causing concussions, not fighting.

    Concussions and fighting are two different areas of the sport. I am not for fighting, however I rather watch that then watch someone get bambi legs from a high hit or miss a season due to injury.

    But the closer we get to a fighting-free NHL, the closer we get to watching the rats take over the game.

    • GinYCC

      Agreed.

      This is where the NHL has to step in and ensure the rats are taken off the ice when they get out of line. Suspensions for things like high hits and slew foots need to get serious.

    • Not a First Tier Fan

      Referees calling the rule-book even if a players skills generate a high number of penalties against them would be a help as well.

      #gutless refs

  • tileguy

    I bet every reader here can remember those scrums from 3 years back when the $6M boys would suddenly need to tie their laces. How well did those teams function?

    • Rock11

      Please do not take this to mean I don’t believe in the value of size or toughness but the one thing those teams you referenced didn’t have more than anything else was….talent. 3 or 4 very young talented players and the rest of the roster that would make the Goldens Knights take pity on them. Talent always wins out. If that talent is tough then all the better.

      • Marshall Law

        Defenceman like Allan Rourke, Corey Potter and Alex Plante being able to get ice time on those teams shows that those struggles were probably more the result of a lack of talent than a lack of toughness, but easy narratives are fun too.

    • JimmyV1965

      Comments like this are so frickin ridiculous. Hall, Ebs and RNH are not out there to throw their weight around. You make it sound like Hall’s fault the team failed to surround him with guys like Lucic and Maroon.

  • fisherprice

    Oh wow, Dave Staples wrote an anti-analytics article? How surprising.

    What? Georges Laraque never once says the words “blogger” or “analytics” but does pointedly mention the “media” several times? Weird how media member Dave Staples managed to turn Laraque’s words into a screed against the bloggers he doesn’t like.

  • Jack Dupp

    We all witnessed what happens without the “functional toughness”. For a good part of nine seasons they tried to go with nuclear deterrents. Sure, they had the toughest guy on the ice for three and a half minutes a night but they didn’t win many games. This past season, with Lucic, Maroon, Drai, Kassian, Gryba, etc. they were a much better team. A team that discovered they had the size, strength and grit to compliment the smaller, skilled players. There wasn’t a need for the old warrior.
    It became a team tough thing.

    • foureyedmike

      I agree, and the approach worked really well this year. But a few years ago, you needed that big enforcer.

      I remember that about 10 years ago, two Oilers were trying to fight Boogaard – I think it was Reasoner and Torres? – and it just looked ridiculous. And Stortini was a really good player for a fighter (and I’m a big fan), but he wasn’t an effective enforcer.

      Credit to Chiarelli for finding four physical, good players who can also fight and intimidate.

  • Petrolero

    first full season with lucic kassian and maroon and the team runs a clean bill of health with our starting goalie, top 6 forwards and top 4 d men. when was the last time that happened around these lands? I think there is plenty of analytic evidence supporting functional toughness as a positive factor here.

    • Games lost to injury, on its own, doesn’t prove or disprove any benefits of toughness in the line-up. If a player toe-picks and falls into the boards untouched, as RNH did a few seasons ago, or busts a finger blocking a shot and misses 20 games or has an Achilles sliced in a board battle, it’s no reflection on team toughness. Injuries just one aspect.

      • Donnie

        McDavid in Philly though, not sure that will happen again anytime soon. We should be grateful our big guys can play the game, not one of them is a “goon” who cannot play.

      • Petrolero

        if u talk about one or 2 players or a few games yes there is little to correlate and it is easy to take those injuries out of the analysi’s because you know their nature. what I’m talking about is about 12 of your most used players staying healthy without contact related injuries for 82 games. correlation does not imply causation, however there are more than enough data points to make a comparison with previous seasons, it all depends on what variables you decide to use but it would be a fun exercise.

        • JimmyV1965

          What? This makes zero sense. Name the injuries to Oilers that could have been prevented with Lucic Maroon and Kassian. We very very lucky lady year. You can almost guarantee more injuries next year. Im all for toughness because it creates more room for skill players. It does not prevent injuries.

    • foureyedmike

      I remember watching Brad May sucker punch Kim Jonson, a complete non fighter, with Boogaard sitting on the bench.

      Toughness is certainly a deterrent, and a momentum changer, but it won’t get rid of all cheap shots.

  • Derp_Solo

    Fighting these days seems like it’s more for show, or just to get the crowd pumped. I’m not sure if it really impacts the game, or how the other team plays against you, but how am I supposed to know. If a former NHLer says tough guys and intimidation are still valuable I’d rather agree with him than an analytics guy

  • Retired Secret Agent

    There will always be a need for toughness and a willingness to punch someone in the face as long as the NHL continues to selectively apply the rule book. If the NHL wants to let rats hack and slash the leagues stars then their team mates have to protect them. I think that’s what Bettbuttman calls parity and intensity.

  • Canoe Ride 27.1

    Looch, Maroon, Kass, Nurse, Gryba etc = accountability. I felt like this year, every moment we had some accountability on the ice.

    I had a lot of Metallica “For Whom the Bell Tolls” stuck in my head.

  • foureyedmike

    I believe in toughness and intimidation and that they have power over the game, and I’m generally a fan of Chiarelli and McLellan. I tend to cheer for tougher teams.

    However, not all GM’s do – and Detroit and Chicago have been successful without being all that tough.

    I think it’s another tool in the arsenal and that it has to be used wisely.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    The game is about entertainment. You want that, look up Terry O’Reilly and Stan Johnathon with the Bruins. Absolute pugilistic classic throwback hockey with little skill. But 400x’s the entertainment value of watching Johnny Gaudreau stick handle a puck.
    Laraque is 100% right. Analytics mathletes can stick to the classroom. Hockey is for physicality and sometimes intimidation. Long live the sport.

  • Physicality is important, simple as that. I’ve been rewatching the Oilers-Sharks series the last few days and you could see the importantance of guys like Maroon or Kassian. You think we win game 2 of that series without Kassian’s beast hitting and physicality? We beat the sharks not just because of our speed but because we beat them physically too. During the season Brent Burns was an unmovable force scoring and bulldozing everyone but when game 6 ended nobody was talking about him. When you want to shut down a team you have to do it defensivly but also physically.

      • foureyedmike

        There might be value in it, just not in eliminating bad hits.

        Shawn Thornton fought Cooke later that year and beat him up. I’m sure Cooke knew it was coming, but he still made that hit.

  • madjam

    Liberties and testing of opposition takes part in most games to see who if any club can get an upper hand in the game . Clubs that do not respond well enough to neutralize the effects of it generally fall victim to intimidation and are thrown off their game more often than not and play passive .

  • Serious Gord

    Throughout hockey history the great teams always had some players on their rosters who were tough ‘peacemakers’. That’s a stat the analytics guys who think there is no place for it have no rebuttal for.

    And while GL is correct to say that lucic provided some of that and that that must be factored in when evaluating his performance this last season – he was also aquired to be the mature, game-changing force when the team most needed it. And he failed at that – he was terrible in the final game of the year – partly at fault for both goals if I recall correctly. And the stats guys have no metric for that either.

  • Marshall Law

    I mean, you don’t really have to look any further than the cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the past two years to see that it’s more important to have good players than tough ones.

    That’s not to say that toughness isn’t useful, but those of you saying that the Oilers owe their success to guys like Lucic and Kassian, when it was clearly the health of McDavid and Klefbom that turned this team around, might be overstating things a bit. (And for those of you that would say that 97 and 77 were healthy because of team toughness, Connor was injured because he lost an edge close to the boards, and Klefbom had a freak staph infection in his ankle, so I don’t see toughess/intimidation preventing those sorts of things. They will happen.)

  • toprightcorner

    If a majority of the players in the NHL feel it is important to have tough guys who can fight on their team, then nobody in media should be questioning it. A writer/blogger does not have the knowledge or experience of the actual NHL players. They have no right to basically say that most of the NHL players are wrong when it comes to toughness and fighting.

  • Rama Lama

    I’m totally with big Georges on this one! For me basis stats are good but some GM’s are running their teams and acquiring talent based on stats. I say if you need stats to show you what player is good or bad……..then you are part of the problem…….and probably a very poor hockey guy!

  • smiliegirl15

    Well when you consider how many man games the Oilers lost previously and how many they lost last season, there may be something to his point. With the addition of guys like Lucic, Kassian and Maroon, and the willingness to stand up for each other, there were certainly a lot less man games lost this past season.
    How many times did we see an Oiler skate past his teammate who’d been crushed on the boards or stick checked? Too many to count. I would say that happened a lot less this season. They are finally becoming a team rather than a bunch of guys who play hockey together. They need all the pieces to make the whole picture and that picture is finally coming into focus.

    • JimmyV1965

      Again, this makes no sense. We were very very lucky last year with so few injuries. Don’t expect that to happen again. Can you name one injury in the last five years that would have been prevented with Lucic Kassian or Maroon? Those guys are valuable because they go to the net and create space for other skill guys. They DO NOT prevent injuries.