NHL Power Rankings: Grading Each Team's Toughness Heading into the Season
Toughness is sometimes hard to define in hockey.
Is it a good clean check? How about a check that levels an opponent, but leads to a power play?
Is pushing and shoving after the whistle toughness?
How about guys that agitate but don't ever drop the gloves?
Or a tough guy who can throw punches with the best of them, but spends more time in the sin bin than on the ice?
Does the definition of toughness change between the regular season and playoffs?
However you define it, hockey is a sport that demands toughness if you want to win. Skill alone doesn't cut it, especially once the playoffs roll around, as evidenced by the Stanley Cup Finals last year.
With all that in mind, I've identified a few key statistics and ranked all 30 NHL teams in terms of toughness going into the 2011-2012 season.
I've looked at three key statistics from the 2010-2011 as a measure of a team's toughness.
First, and most importantly, the number of hits delivered by each team. Hitting isn't the only indication of toughness, but the ability to knock your opponent to the ice while battling for the puck is the most important measure of toughness, because it applies equally to the regular season and playoffs.
Second, the number of fighting majors for each team. This is a key measure of toughness in the regular season, but less so in the playoffs when fights are rare.
Third, the number of penalty minutes incurred by each team. I gave this the least weight of the three statistics, as most penalties are for obstruction or stick fouls, not physical play.
Lastly, I also considered player movement over the summer.
#30 Tampa Bay Lightning
1647 hits (27th in the NHL)
20 fights (28th in the NHL)
905 penalty minutes (22nd in the NHL)
Despite Steve Downie (pictured above), the Lightning aren't a tough team. They don't have to be, given their firepower upfront.
Steve Yzerman is clearly building this team on the same blueprint that was so successful during his time in Detroit, and that doesn't call for toughness.
#29 Nashville Predators
1684 hits (23th in the NHL)
18 fights (29th in the NHL)
720 penalty minutes (29th in the NHL)
Despite their Smashville playoff slogan, the Predators aren't a physical team.
Tenacious when defending? Yes. Physically imposing? Not so much.
They get by through outworking the opposition, not by putting the opposition through the glass.
The loss of Shane O'Brien exacerbates the situation as well.
#28 Buffalo Sabres
1505 hits (30th in the NHL)
30 fights (22nd in the NHL)
958 penalty minutes (17th in the NHL)
The Sabres were dead last in terms of hits delivered last year. The addition of Zach Kassian and Robyn Regehr will improve that a bit this year.
#27 Winnipeg Jets
1512 hits (29th in the NHL)
33 fights (19th in the NHL)
930 penalty minutes (20th in the NHL)
The Thrashers were almost last in the league in terms of hits last year, and the newly relocated franchise knew that the Winnipeg fans would want to see an immediate upgrade in terms of team toughness. So they signed Tanner Glass and Rick Rypien, two former Canucks who had played in Winnipeg during their AHL days.
Glass is a two way winger who can play physical and drop the gloves, while Rypien was a fan favorite in Winnipeg and Vancouver for his underdog attitude and ability to routinely beat the crap out of enforcers who towered over him.
Unfortunately, Rypien passed away this summer, and, as a consequence, the Jets aren't as tough as they would like to be.
Still, this is an upgraded team over last year in terms of toughness.
#26 Detroit Red Wings
1794 hits (19th in the NHL)
13 fights (30th in the NHL)
754 penalty minutes (27th in the NHL)
Detroit isn't tough, and they don't pretend to be. The game plan in Detroit over the last two decades has been to bury the other team with speed and skill, not with body checks. And going by a count of the banners hanging in the rafters, it is working.
#25 Vancouver Canucks
1791 hits (20th in the NHL)
29 fights (23rd in the NHL)
943 penalty minutes (18th in the NHL)
Like the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Vancouver Canucks are built to emulate the Detroit Red Wings, the most successful franchise in the modern era.
That means speed, skill and getting even on the scoreboard, not by retaliating. And it worked for Vancouver all the way up to the last few games of the Stanley Cup Finals.
An odd note is that while Vancouver was only 20th for hits in the regular season, they upped their physical game to lead the NHL in playoff hits. However, it is doubtful they could keep up that pace in the regular season, especially with the loss of Rick Rypien, Tanner Glass and Raffi Torres.
#24 Calgary Flames
1664 hits (24th in the NHL)
35 fights (18th in the NHL)
836 penalty minutes (18th in the NHL)
The Calgary Flames lost Robyn Regehr, which will hurt their toughness. Otherwise, not much has changed in terms of team toughness.
#23 New Jersey Devils
1539 hits (28th in the NHL)
37 fights (17th in the NHL)
765 penalty minutes (26th in the NHL)
The Devils added tough-guy Cam Janssen as a free agent, and he should help provide some sorely needed muscle.
#22 Montreal Canadiens
1658 hits (26th in the NHL)
35 fights (21st in the NHL)
1097 penalty minutes (10th in the NHL)
The Canadiens are fast, skilled and have a hot young goalie, as well as a rising star on defence.
What they didn't have was a top six forward who appeared tall enough to ride a roller coaster. Adding Eric Cole as a free agent to the top six is a much needed injection of toughness and size
#21 Chicago Blackhawks
1824 hits (15th in the NHL)
28 fights (24th in the NHL)
742 penalty minutes (28th in the NHL)
The Blackhawks were a feisty, physical team when they won the Stanley Cup two years ago. Salary cap induced roster problems and a Stanley Cup hangover changed the mentality of the Hawks last year, but they found their fighting spirit again in the playoffs against Vancouver.
Expect the Hawks of 2011-2012 to play more like the Hawks of 2009-2010 than last year's edition.
#20 Phoenix Coyotes
1881 hits (13th in the NHL)
23 fights (27th in the NHL)
863 penalty minutes (23rd in the NHL)
The Phoenix Coyotes added tough guy Raffi Torres on July 1st.
As he showed repeatedly in the playoffs, other players need to keep their heads up when Torres is on the ice. The question is when, not if, will he be suspended under the new, tighter rules?
#19 Colorado Avalanche
1726 hits (22nd in the NHL)
43 fights (18th in the NHL)
1077 penalty minutes (11th in the NHL)
The Avalanche added Shane O'Brien to the mix. O'Brien likes to play physical and isn't afraid to drop the gloves, which should be a blessing for rebuilding team that looks to need that protection most nights.
#18 Florida Panthers
1895 hits (11th in the NHL)
24 fights (26th in the NHL)
716 penalty minutes (30th in the NHL)
One of the few things Florida did well last year was being physical while not crossing the line. They were 11th in the NHL for hits delivered, but the fewest penalty minutes of any NHL team.
The challenge will be for the Panthers to keep up that mentality with the massive roster overhaul they performed going into this season.
#17 Minnesota Wild
1865 hits (14th in the NHL)
32 fights (20th in the NHL)
983 penalty minutes (15th in the NHL)
Aside from having one of the best names and moustaches in the NHL today, Cal Clutterbuck is always one of the NHL's leaders in hits.
However, the Wild don't have a lot of other tough guys or physical players that stand out. This summer, they addressed their main problem, lack of scoring. Toughness should take care of itself, or at least not be a glaring weakness.
#16 Ottawa Senators
1658 hits (25th in the NHL)
46 fights (14th in the NHL)
1149 penalty minutes (6th in the NHL)
Perhaps inspired (or frightened) by their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators beefed up by signing Zenon Konopka, a gritty fourth liner center who also is amongst the leaders in fighting majors every season.
#15 San Jose Sharks
1801 hits (17th in the NHL)
48 fights (12th in the NHL)
931 penalty minutes (19th in the NHL)
The Sharks were known as a big team that played small in the playoffs. That perception changed last year in the Western Conference Finals, when two of their three big offensive stars were challenging Canucks to fight from the opening whistle of Game 1.
Joe Thornton, hardly known as a fighter, challenged Ryan Kesler right off the opening draw of Game 1 in an attempt to set a tone for the series. When was the last time you saw an Art Ross winner try to initiate a fight?
Patrick Marleau showed his frustration with his team's fate later on in the series by challenging Kevin Bieksa. Marleau lost the fight, but did inspire his team.
You'll also note that the other big San Jose offensive star, Dany Heatley, didn't play physical in any fashion. And he was promptly shipped out of town in a deal with Minnesota.
If the Sharks forwards continue to play as physical as their size suggests they can, and if the defense is still led by rock-solid Douglas Murray, then the Sharks could be one of the most physical teams in the NHL. I'm not sold that they can do it consistently for an entire 82 game season though.
#14 Carolina Hurricanes
2128 hits (5th in the NHL)
25 fights (25th in the NHL)
835 penalty minutes (25th in the NHL)
Carolina lost a bit of toughness when Erik Cole walked as a free agent. That being said, they were 5th in the NHL for hits last year, while being one of the least penalized teams, so toughness isn't an issue for them.
#13 Boston Bruins
1736 hits (21st in the NHL)
71 fights (2nd in the NHL)
1115 penalty minutes (8th in the NHL)
The Bruins weren't a very tough team in the regular season last year, aside from racking up a lot of fights. But they certainly found another gear in the playoffs, ramping up their physicality in every round.
Can they keep that up for the 2011-2012 regular season?
I think not. The Stanley Cup hangover is a fact, and Boston will suffer from it.
Like the Chicago Blackhawks before them, Boston might regain their form come the playoffs, but don't expect them to play with the same energy and intensity during the regular season.
#12 New York Islanders
1808 hits (16th in the NHL)
68 fights (4th in the NHL)
1515 penalty minutes (1st in the NHL)
Toughness isn't a problem on the island. Scoring, defence and goaltending are problems, but not toughness.
Expect more of the same from the Islanders this year.
#11 Washington Capitals
1885 hits (12th in the NHL)
45 fights (15th in the NHL)
926 penalty minutes (21st in the NHL)
The Capitals added Troy Brower for much needed toughness in the top six forwards.
Relying on Alexander Ovechkin to be both the best skill player and also the most physical player on the team is a fool's game over an 82 game regular season. This reliance on Ovechkin is one of the reasons he hasn't been able to elevate his game in the playoffs.
Like he did in Chicago, Brower will make space and time for his more skilled line mates, and pot the odd goal himself in the process.
#10 Philadelphia Flyers
1905 hits (10th in the NHL)
47 fights (13th in the NHL)
1119 penalty minutes (7th in the NHL)
The Flyers are a tough team, but they aren't the broad street bullies of years past. Back in their 80's prime, the Flyers would have racked up 47 fighting majors on a good road trip. A healthy Chris Pronger should help to improve their toughness this season.
#9 Los Angeles Kings
2127 hits (6th in the NHL)
49 fights (11th in the NHL)
962 penalty minutes (16th in the NHL)
The Kings were a tough team to play last season, and the addition of Mike Richards certainly improves upon an already impressive roster of two-way players. However, the loss of Wayne Simmonds in the blockbuster trade to Philadelphia mitigates this to a degree.
#8 Edmonton Oilers
1794 hits (18th in the NHL)
55 fights (7th in the NHL)
1270 penalty minutes (3rd in the NHL)
The Oilers added Ryan Smyth for veteran toughness, and Darcy Hordichuk to finish fights so Taylor Hall doesn't have to fight his own battles. They also added Ben Eager, which is increased toughness, but at a significant cost.
Eager is a loose cannon, but he is effective at his job. Which generally consists of being a wrecking ball on the ice, and taking penalties so his more skilled teammates can take a two minute rest on the bench.
#7 Toronto Maple Leafs
2049 hits (7th in the NHL)
50 fights (10th in the NHL)
985 penalty minutes (14th in the NHL)
If a Brian Burke team isn't the toughness team in the division, then something isn't right with the hockey world. The Leafs are the toughest team in the North East division, and no one seems likely to take that away from them anytime soon.
#6 Dallas Stars
2212 hits (4th in the NHL)
51 fights (9th in the NHL)
1066 penalty minutes (13th in the NHL)
Dallas has a lot of problems both on and off the ice. Luckily, GM Joe Nieuwendyk can focus on other areas, because toughness is clearly not a problem in Texas.
#5 Columbus Blue Jackets
2316 hits (2nd in the NHL)
54 fights (8th in the NHL)
1113 penalty minutes (9th in the NHL)
The Columbus Blue Jackets were an extremely tough team last year, albeit a bit undisciplined. However, they took a step back in terms of toughness with losing Scottie Upshall and Mike Commodore to free agency.
But that decrease in toughness shouldn't hurt so much now that Rick Nash finally has a real #1 centre to play with, so the Blue Jackets can try to win on the scoreboard, not in the alley.
#4 Anaheim Ducks
1936 hits (9th in the NHL)
67 fights (5th in the NHL)
1178 penalty minutes (5th in the NHL)
The Ducks may not have the "mighty" moniker in the official name of the franchise, but no one told the players that.
Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry are a monster line of power forwards. No one else in the NHL can match their size and strength as a line. They remind me of the Legion of Doom line for Philadelphia back when Eric Lindros was in his prime.
The Ducks also have George Parros to play sheriff and make sure the other team plays nice.
#3 Pittsburgh Penguins
2280 hits (3rd in the NHL)
71 fights (3rd in the NHL)
1388 penalty minutes (2nd in the NHL)
The Penguins lost two of the best players in the NHL for the majority of the year, and responding by morphing into one of the hardest working teams in the NHL. Any team thinking they could get an easy W against a star-less Penguins team was in for a rude awakening.
The Penguins also have the most hated player in the NHL, Matt Cooke, on their roster. Say what you want about Cooke's style of play, but he does intimidate other players and force them to be aware of when he is on the ice. When he isn't suspended that is.
If the Penguins continue this take no prisoners approach in the upcoming season, and combine that with the return of Crosby and Malkin, then they should have no problem handling other teams both on the scoreboard and in the corners.
#2 St Louis Blues
1958 hits (8th in the NHL)
78 fights (1st in the NHL)
1225 penalty minutes (4th in the NHL)
Not a lot went right for the St. Louis Blues last season. Injury problems throughout the year meant that they didn't make the playoffs and build upon their success in the 2009-2010 season.
However, toughness is an area where they definitely didn't suffer. A full season from power forward Chris Stewart, who they stole in a lopsided deal with Colorado, will help them improve on last years impressive numbers, although they did lose Cam Janssen to free agency.
#1 New York Rangers
2333 hits (1st in the NHL)
62 fights (6th in the NHL)
1074 penalty minutes (12th in the NHL)
I'll be honest, I didn't realize how tough the Rangers were until I actually looked at the stats. When you just see highlights of the game, you don't realize how many hits they are throwing.
The Rangers were already the leading team in delivering hits, and now newcomer Michael Rupp will also be throwing bodies around at Madison Square Garden.