Ask your hockey-loving friends who the best players in the NHL are – the best goal-scorers, the best defensemen, the best passer. Every one of those answers can be backed up with statistical evidence.
But who are the toughest guys? Now the picture is getting a bit grayer. How do you quantify toughness? Is there one particular stat to look at? And where does talent fit into the equation?
NHL.com wasn’t quite sure, so we found someone with a little more knowledge – Jay Feaster, the former general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning who assembled the 2004 Stanley Cup championship club. Here are Feaster’s opinions on who are the most talented tough guys in the Western Conference:
Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames – There’s nothing that Iginla doesn’t do well. He’s an elite scorer, a good passer, a strong skater, and he never backs away from a physical challenge. Iginla had his second 50-goal season, and his 98 points were tops in the Western Conference and third in the League. He also had 83 penalty minutes, including five majors, more than anyone else who had at least 75 points. He also dished out 98 hits.
“He’s just such a special player,” Feaster said. “He has so many weapons. It’s his physical strength, his size, he skates so well, he has a cannon for a shot, he has an accurate shot. He’s a guy that creates space for himself. He’s a guy you have to be worried about every time he’s out there.
“He loves to compete, loves to play that physical style. He loves the little battles that take place in the bigger battle of the game.”
Brenden Morrow, Dallas Stars -- It’s hard to look at Morrow and not see what Iginla would have looked like had he stayed in Dallas, the team that drafted him No. 11 in the 1995 Entry Draft.
Morrow never has shied away from the physical aspect of the game – he’s averaged nearly three hits per game over the last three seasons and has gone over 100 penalty minutes in two of the last three seasons.
In 2006-07, though, Morrow broke out offensively with 32 goals and 74 points, but he also landed 260 hits, third in the League.
“As guys mature, as they do it and get comfortable doing it and have success doing it, that’s probably the biggest thing,” said Feaster of the combination of talent and toughness. “He has had success and now he’s picked up the offensive production. Now it’s just a matter of being inclined to do it.”
Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames – Phaneuf has been a wrecking ball since entering the League in 2005. He had 17 goals – including 10 on the power play – and a career-best 60 points. He also had a career-high 182 penalty minutes, which was nearly 100 minutes more than last season. And with 194 hits, it was his third season of at least 190.
“He’s as tough as they come,” Feaster said. “He’s another one of those guys that you’re going to talk about as a Norris (Trophy) candidate and MVP candidate.”
Erik Cole, Edmonton Oilers – Feaster had a front-row seat for a number of years when Cole played for Carolina and would come into Tampa Bay four times a season.
“He’s tremendously talented, loves to hit, loves to finish his checks,” Feaster said. “Another of those guys that are tough to play against, very talented, not afraid to give and take and play a physical game.
Cole has had at least 20 goals each of the last three seasons, and even a broken neck suffered in March 2006 hasn’t slowed him down all that much. He had 222 hits in 2006-07, and 123 in 2007-08. He was traded to Edmonton over the summer.
Daniel Carcillo, Phoenix Coyotes – In his second NHL season, Carcillo totaled the first 10-goal/300-penalty minute season since Matthew Barnaby in 1995-96. That combination of talent and toughness has been accomplished by just 19 other players in the history of the League.
Carcillo signed a two-year contract over the summer to stay in Phoenix, and he’ll likely play more than the 57 games he skated in last season. The Coyotes signed Brian McGrattan to do a lot of the physical things Carcillo did last season, which should allow the left wing to showcase the skills that allowed him to score 21 goals in the American Hockey League in 2006-07.
“I think he’s got some real offensive ability,” Feaster said. “He’s an intriguing guy in that he can be more than a tough guy.”
Chris Pronger, Anaheim Ducks – The rougher things get, the happier Pronger seems to be. Pronger had 74 hits, a team-high 99 blocked shots and 128 penalty minutes to go along with 12 goals and 43 points.
Pronger hasn’t wracked up a lot of hits over the years, mostly because opposing players stick to the other side of the ice when he’s out there.
“He’s incredibly talented and as tough as they come,” Feaster said. “He plays with an edge to his game. That style of play, that intimidating style of play, being on the edge or just over it, looking like he’s out of control, that’s been very effective for him. He’s very good at it.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.