The Metropolitan Division reacted to one apparently immutable factor, which has changed the philosophy and trajectory of at least one other team in the division. The Washington Capitals and the Tom Wilson factor shoved the New York Rangers into desperate acquisitions of toughness, including a self-proclaimed sheriff. The New York Islanders are tough, the Philadelphia Flyers got much tougher, and the Pittsburgh Penguins hope to add 6-foot-6 Brian Boyle.
The Penguins President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke believes in tough hockey, though the Penguins roster has not yet added heavy sandpaper to the lineup.
PHN spoke with former NHL player and tough guy Stu Grimson about the state of the game’s seeming lurch back to toughness. According to Hockey Fights, Grimson had 12 fights against famed pugilist and talented player Bob Probert, the most either player had against any other. He played in the salad days of skill and toughness when the toughest players like Probert, Grimson, and Marty McSorely skated in the same league as all-time greats Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
You may remember Grimson from Chicago in the 1992 Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins. Since his playing days ended, 6-foot-5 Grimson became a lawyer.
Imagine arguing briefs against him, eh?
As the Metro Division has lurched towards the physical and the added guys who can drop the gloves, we needed an inside point of view from someone whose job it was to calm the waters. And there were few better than Grimson.
One player–Tom Wilson–has arced the trajectory of the entire division, especially following his treatment of the New York Rangers. That’s impressive, even for the premier pot-stir Tom Wilson.
“If you’re a club like the New York Rangers where you don’t really dress a physical, imposing team before the Tom Wilson incident with Panarin last year,” Grimson began. “And you see the downside of that– is that guys like Wilson don’t believe they’re going to be held accountable, and they take liberties they may not otherwise take.”
Accountability. Put a pin in that word for the next eight months.
Frontier justice isn’t necessarily exacting revenge to feel better, but the threat of being accountable deters all of us, right? It also sends a message to your own team too.
“I think it’s incumbent upon (the GM), number one, to be competitive. Number two, to demonstrate to Panarin’s on your roster–Hey, we realize there’s a shortcoming here in our makeup. We’re going to address that, and you’re going to be in a situation where you can play with the peace of mind that a Wilson-Panarin incident isn’t going to happen at some point in the future.”
One of the most contentious issues in the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase, besides Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin’s futures, is the role of truculence in the game. It surely seems to be changing, but even a year ago, the Penguins blogosphere–and by extension the fans–would howl at the suggestion the Penguins needed more toughness.
Just play, right? Grimson praised the Penguins’ ability, to a point.
“Now, guys like Malkin and Crosby and Guentzel… they tend to be a group where they’re able to play through the heavy going, the heavy fog, just because they’ve got that mindset, that skill set,” Grimson said. “I could probably point to a handful at clubs and say on any given night if you play the game like you’re going to run these guys out of the building, you’ve probably increased your odds of winning on this particular night by 20, 25, maybe, maybe 40%.”
Though the former NHL tough guy turned legal eagle conceded there is a limit to “just play.”
It seems Pittsburgh Penguins fans have been waiting for toughness this summer. Perhaps watching Wilson become a one-man wrecking crew against the Rangers last season, or watching the New York Islanders grind the Penguins to flower, swung the pendulum, even though Mike Sullivan quickly dismissed any notions the Penguins lost to New York in Round One because of physicality.
Grimson expects the Penguins’ moves on the NHL trade market for tough players to begin as soon as it’s feasible.
“(Burke) and I see the world and probably see the game in the very same way. And the fact that he hasn’t made a deal to this point to address that piece on his roster is because the right deal hasn’t come along…” Grimson told us. “I think for guys like Burkie, if you’re going to go out and get somebody like that–this is this has been an age old adage in the sport–if you feel like you need to go out and get a lion, you may as well get the biggest, meanest cat in all the jungle.
You know, there’s no point going half measures on all that. So my point is, I’m sure Burkie is working to address that.”
We chatted with Grimson before the Penguins signed Boyle. However, it can be argued the Penguins management team with Burke and GM Ron Hextall have not yet addressed physicality in a meaningful way since Boyle is only a PTO. His lineup position would be tenuous once the Penguins are fully healthy.
Training camp will begin in about two weeks, so GM Ron Hextall and From the inside, what does a player like Wilson mean to the Capitals game plan, and the Penguins game plan against him?
Physicality. Accountability. Pushback. They matter, even to a team with a strong mindset to sidestep the ugliness. Sometimes, it’s forced upon a team like what Wilson did to New York.
Not only does a player like Wilson, or Reaves, have an effect, not having a counter-balance has an effect, too.
The Penguins may or may not have a response in their lineup. Former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak would count as a half measure, as the big defenseman wasn’t naturally a bruiser but gave it his best shot. Oleksiak tried to respond to Wilson in Dec. 2018, was concussed in the fight, and traded back to the Dallas Stars for a fourth-round pick by February.
The only potential measure the Penguins may have on their regular-season roster is 6-foot-6, 245-pound Brian Boyle, who will attend Penguins camp on a PTO. Even if Boyle lands on the Penguins roster, he’ll have difficulty sticking around when everyone is healthy.
The Penguins may not have any measures without Boyle.
“It’s still an interesting question to wrestle with within our sport,” Grimson concluded. “I think it kind of depends, you know, who you are, what your division looks like, who you see on a regular basis, where your rivals are.”
Matt Martin (NYI), Samuel Morin (PHI), Wilson (WSH), and Reaves (NYR) are players who are legitimate heavyweights when the gloves hit the ice. The Philadelphia Flyers got tougher–a lot tougher to play against–since last season when they folded at mid-season.
That’s where the Pittsburgh Penguins rivals are. It’s their move, or we’re going to hear a lot of “Just play.”