NHL 'toughness' is dying out, and that's a good thing

Players like Milan Lucic are a dying breed. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Players like Milan Lucic are a dying breed. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The league-wide need for “toughness” has been a big topic of discussion as old people see the game changing.

It wasn’t so long ago that the vast majority of teams in the league had their designated tough guys who would only get like 10 shifts a night, and those only when called upon. At that point, they came over the boards, threw their bodies or fists around, and generally seemed to discourage other teams from the kind of cheapshottery that happens when you have a bunch of no-talents on every roster.

But the game has changed and continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Teams simply don’t make room in the lineup for a five-minutes-a-night guy because they can’t. The NHL is too fast now, too skilled, to leave even a single roster spot open to a guy whose primary function is to make things like bad hits and stickwork not happen, in favor of a guy whose role is more oriented around making things like goals happen.

Even defense-first players, who aren’t strictly toughness guys but whose game revolves around the same kind of past-think, are seeing their opportunities die out pretty quickly these days. It seems NHL teams would prefer a shot generated to one denied, and that’s good for hockey overall.

But it’s not good for Hockey Men. On multiple occasions this season, Boston media has pined away from someone to do a little more hitting and punching than the Bruins have received this season. It’s easy enough to chalk the injuries up to opponents “taking liberties” but the fact is that injuries happen all the time for weird reasons; sometimes you deal with them en masse, and far more often you don’t.

Meanwhile, the Bruins’ apparent lack of that hoped-for quality of yesteryear doesn’t seem to stop them from dusting many of the teams they play — including the Maple Leafs, one of the best teams in the league — on a regular basis. Their most recent win over Toronto, in fact, prompted the usual goobers in the local media there to start bemoaning the Leafs’ own lack of toughness for, I guess, not trying to cave Brad Marchand’s skull in with a rock once the Leafs were down a field goal.

And y’know, media guys can say to coaches, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a guy like that?” and coaches who made their bones playing the sport at a high level in the ’80s and ’90s — when those guys were very much a thing — can say, “Yeah I guess so.” And that can be used as a cudgel in rhetorical arguments that ultimately don’t matter because no matter how much the media or the mouth-breathing ticketbuyers want them, those guys aren’t coming back into the league.

On the 31 Thoughts podcast this week, Andrew Ference — another former Bruins guy who wasn’t afraid of a scrap, though that certainly wasn’t his calling card — said something about how Milan Lucic isn’t earning his money anymore, but other teams hate it when he’s running around on the forecheck. And I guess that’s true, right? Like, no one wants a 260-pound guy crashing into them, but let’s also keep in mind that the definition of Lucic “running around” these days is more like a brisk walking pace for the rest of the league.

Hasn’t stopped the Edmonton media from singing Lucic’s praises even as he has three fewer points than Drake Caggiula in eight more games. “Sure he’s not living up to the contract, and if he weren’t a good quote we’d run him out of town with at least half as much fervor as we did Taylor Hall. But he reminds me of a time when no one was challenging my perceptions of the sport I’ve built my life around.”

Here’s how much the goalposts have moved on Lucic: He has two assists in 10 games under Hitchcock, for a $6-million AAV, and that’s somehow being widely praised. He’s also on a line with two guys who fit a similar bill as him (low offense but lots of “jam”), so no surprise this is a Chiarelli team. He really seems to be one of the last holdouts in a smarter, better, more entertaining league. Wonder if there’s any correlation between that and the fact that everyone thinks he’s done a terrible job managing the Oilers. Probably not.

It’s not that toughness as a general attribute is going away; guys who go to the front of the net or who can be physically involved on the forecheck are always going to be more valuable than guys who play on the perimeter. So certainly, you’d rather have a guy who can play physical — or at least not shy away from that style — in addition to playing well, but if that’s a guy’s main attribute, it’s not something teams are going to be interested in.

Put another way: With expansion, teams are going to have to bring on even more players who are a bit one-dimensional, and they’re now wisely choosing guys whose dimension is “creating goals” rather than “taking penalties.”

I know people over the age of 40 would, by and large, rather go the bread-and-circus route and have any game they watch carry with it the imminent danger of someone being hospitalized for violating The Code. But it ain’t 1989 anymore, gang, and it’s never going to be again.

In much the same way the ’96 Bulls would get wrecked by the modern Warriors, the tools required to thrive in the NHL today have changed for the better. Just like there will never be another day when a guy like Tony Kukoc can be a good 3, the decades-long era of teams seeking out Lucic types are over and it’s not coming back.

You can either accept it, or you can bemoan it for another few years. But either way, you aren’t changing anything.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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