Grit vs. Skill In The NHL: How Do Coaches Play It?

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Who would you rather match against Patrick Marleau?

We've been through this before, but it's worth re-hashing, especially in light of the madding crowd's affection for Craig MacTavish's acquisitions of "gritty" players. In the comments of Ryan's article on the Fraser acquisition, frequent commenter OilTastic answers my question about playing gritty players against Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau by not answering at all, instead, asking in return:

your comment makes it seem like you believe it’s a good idea to play Omark, Rajala and Hemsky against Marleau and Thornton, is this correct?

Given the question, it's worth looking at Patrick Marleau's most common opponents at even strength from 2008-2013, via Hockey Analysis, along with Marleau's Corsi/60 against east opponent over that time:

Marleau Opponent TOI Corsi/60
Corey Perry 183.25 0.33
Dustin Brown 179.98 -2.64
Ryan Getzlaf 178.23 -2.34
Anze Kopitar 176.47 -7.47
Martin Hanzal 141.40 2.55
Henrik Zetterberg 139.43 -7.74
Bobby Ryan 137.55 -1.74
Loui Eriksson 136.83 11.82
Pavel Datsyuk 129.08 -13.95
Mikko Koivu 128.18 -11.73
Shane Doan 127.50 3.78
Jarome Iginla 122.67 8.82
David Backes 114.65 5.76
Daniel Sedin 111.48 2.16
Henrik Sedin 111.38 7.53
Jamie Benn 111.23 0.54
Mike Ribeiro 110.97 0.54
Radim Vrbata 104.07 5.19
Ray Whitney 102.28 1.17
Rick Nash 101.15 18.99
Alex Burrows 100.68 12.51
Patrick Kane 96.68 -4.35
Ryan Smyth 95.67 -12.54
Jonathan Toews 94.62 -23.46
Martin Erat 93.10 12.87
Michal Handzus 91.55 24.90
Teemu Selanne 87.98 10.92
Brad Richards 87.92 20.49
David Legwand 87.00 18.63
Steve Ott 86.93 14.52
Matt Duchene 84.23 17.79
Milan Hejduk 83.77 9.33
Daniel Winnik 83.20 3.60
RJ Umberger 82.48 24.00
Brenden Morrow 81.97 -7.32
Dustin Penner 81.47 -1.47
Taylor Hall 80.95 21.51
Justin Williams 79.60 -24.87
Lauri Korpikoski 79.43 50.61
Shawn Horcoff 77.90 11.58
Todd Bertuzzi 76.55 4.71
Olli Jokinen 75.92 7.92
Eric Belanger 74.98 -11.19
Andrew Brunette 74.83 -4.83
Dan Cleary 74.68 -14.46
Jordan Eberle 73.85 17.88
Ryan Kesler 73.75 -4.86
Saku Koivu 73.62 21.99
Antoine Vermette 73.27 31.11
Patrick Sharp 72.68 20.64
Mike Fisher 72.35 -6.63
TJ Oshie 71.40 27.72
Andrew Cogliano 71.00 13.53
Marian Hossa 70.52 -4.23
Jarret Stoll 70.45 -30.66
Johan Franzen 70.35 0.87
Valtteri Filppula 69.50 -6.93
James Neal 69.43 -3.45
Wayne Simmonds 68.92 4.35
Paul Stastny 68.32 5.28
Sergei Kostitsyn 66.75 -16.17
Vernon Fiddler 66.45 24.39
David Perron 65.65 26.52
Sam Gagner 65.27 18.39
Kristian Huselius 65.02 5.55
Lee Stempniak 64.73 -0.93
Taylor Pyatt 62.97 5.70
Jeff Carter 61.87 -7.77
Alex Tanguay 61.83 23.28
Antti Miettinen 61.73 4.86
Alex Ovechkin 61.72 4.86
Patrik Berglund 61.55 6.81
Boyd Gordon 61.28 19.56
Alexander Frolov 60.55 34.68
Mike Cammalleri 60.50 10.89

While there is an occasional player like Vern Fiddler on the list, not that Marleau's most common opponents are good players, rather than players from the gritty sub-category.

So, to answer the non-answer posed by OilTastic, if I had to choose between the lines of Joensuu-Jones-Gazdic and Omark-Rajala-Hartikainen to match against Patrick Marleau, I'd choose the latter every time, not because of grit, but because the latter three are better players than the former. Given the list of Marleau's most common opponents, NHL coaches choose to do the same almost every time.

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