As a hockey writer, I get a lot more freedom in the summer to dive into topics that aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the news – largely because there isn’t much buzz around the league in August. Rather than write a piece about RFA negotiations and the threat of an offer sheet, I thought it would be fun to tackle a more divisive issue in hockey circles. How valuable is “toughness” in the modern game? I’ve always found this question difficult to answer because of the limited research we have on the topic. I’m someone who always likes basing my opinions on tangible evidence, whether it’s through the use of qualitative information (video analysis) or quantitative data (“the numbers”). The tricky part about “grit” and “toughness” is that they aren’t as easy to measure as offensive metrics like shots, passes, zone entries or even defensive metrics like shot attempts against, gap control and takeaways. This is often why we tend to hear about the “intangible” value of toughness, but that implies we aren’t able to accurately identify it in the first place. I’m not satisfied with that conclusion. What aspects of ‘toughness’ can we identify? As much as I love using numbers, it’s important to consider the value of video analysis when we’re breaking down the components of a player’s game – and toughness is no exception. Keep in mind, I’m not referring to mindlessly elbowing a player in the head or starting a fight right after a whistle. When I think of grit, I’m looking for the productive component that helps your team win. For example, if you can intimidate an opposing defenseman on the forecheck with a clean (but terrifying) hit, it can be extremely valuable. This is something that won’t show up on the box score, but the next time Tom Wilson comes roaring in on the forecheck, the defenseman is much more likely to “hear the footsteps” and make an ill-advised pass. That’s going to result in more defensive zone turnovers for the opposition, which we know lead to high percentage scoring opportunities. We could also bring up the “intimidation factor” of a player known for crossing the line with illegal hits, but I feel like that would take us down a path where we end up arguing about the shortcomings of the NHL Player Safety Department. I don’t want to get into that discussion in this article, so we’ll leave that topic for another day (but you know which players I’m referring to). Getting back to how we measure toughness, video is probably the best way to identify which players are providing “sandpaper” in the corners, but it’s worth pointing out that we do have ways of quantifying it. Something as simple as Hits per 60 minutes at even strength can be telling; private companies like Sportlogiq can track things like Puck Battles Won per 60; there’s also my personal favorite – Hits Against per 60. The reason I’m such a fan of the latter is that it fits my definition of what a “tough” hockey player needs to do – take a hit to make the right play. It’s easy to level an opposing defenseman on the forecheck after they get rid of the puck, but it’s brutal taking a hard hit in the corner to help your team maintain puck possession. This is why players like Zach Hyman, Patric Hornqvist or Joonas Donskoi can be so valuable at 5-on-5. They’re getting to the tough areas on the ice and taking the physical beating that’s necessary to help their team maintain control in the offensive zone. This helps explain why Hits Against per 60 in the offensive zone is a significant variable in EvolvingWild’s WAR metric – productive grit can have big-time value. Now, this is where we need to bring up the fact that not all grit is productive. If you’re constantly racking up hit totals (but rarely getting hit yourself), it’s likely because your team doesn’t have the puck and you’re chasing the game. This is why we can’t just sort players by Hits and call it a day – we’d end up with mostly replacement level forwards. First and foremost, you need to be a good hockey player (drive play and produce offense). The ability to overpower the opposition in the tough areas can be the icing on top of a cake – but no team wants a cake made of icing on their roster in 2019 (e.g. Colton Orr). What about fighting? This could be a separate article in itself, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the value of fighting in 2019. It’s nowhere near as much of a factor as it was in the past, with fighting rates dropping significantly over the past decade.