Pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence -- nobody could have defined gritty play better than Brian Burke. No matter your feelings on the current President of Hockey Operations of the Calgary Flames, Burke is a definitive master at building successful hockey franchises. At the cornerstone of every one of his teams has been a core of players willing to play to the very edge of the rules -- and then some. The result of this strategy: every place he's ever touched has gotten better.
This lesson is directly applicable to the fantasy sports world, and good fantasy GMs already know this one key fact: players that play a gritty style of hockey not only contribute cross-category better than most, but also continuously find a more consistent brand of performance than all but the elite players. Personally, I have won multiple championships in my leagues by using big, bruising players as the glue between the key elite players that I drafted for goal-production. The combination has been instrumental, and is a format I repeat year-over-year to great success.
Looking at the performance numbers this year, grit is still widely available, and can bolster almost any lineup. If you're playing in a mid- to deep-pool this year, I cannot emphasize strong enough how critical these players will be to delivering you your own championship.
Scott Hartnell W, CLS - A member of each of my teams for the past decade, no other player in the league has embodied grit as much as Hartnell; this year is no different. In 29 games this year, he has 12 goals and nine assists for 21 points, along with 39 PIM and six PPP. The elder statesman of Columbus had a rough start to the year, but the last ten games has seen his renaissance, with four goals and three assists for seven points and 22 PIM. When he's been healthy, he's found a way to put up 50 to 60 points per season along with over 100 PIM -- a fantastic addition to the bottom of any roster where PIMs are a category. While many are discovering the advantages to Hartnell ownership, his levels are still reasonable enough (64 percent) that there's a good chance of getting him on the wire. If you can do so, there's no better gritty player in the league to take a chance on.
Justin Abdelkader W, DET - Never previously one to really mix things up, Abdelkader has recently found that elevating his physical play has come with definitive production boosts. It's not a coincidence that his career year last year -- 44 points in 71 games -- also came with career highs in PIM. He's continued this trend into this year, posting 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points in 30 games, while also spending 31 minutes in the box. His five power-play goals also won't hurt your PPP categories. At the one-third mark of the season, he has realized almost half his point totals along with almost half his penalty totals -- something that I believe will continue the rest of the year. With ownership rates at 50 percent, he's also imminently available, and a solid backup strategy should Scott Hartnell not be available in your league.
Wayne Simmonds W, PHI - Another frequent member of my fantasy teams, Simmonds and the Flyers collectively tripped out the gate this year. In 30 games, Simmonds has seven goals and nine assists for 16 points, an abysmal minus-13, but a contrasting 48 PIM. It's only been in the past month that things have gotten better; in his last ten games, he has four goals and three assists for seven points, a minus-one, and 15 PIM. This recent trend appears to be more indicative of the rest of the season for Simmonds, and one that many haven't clued into yet. His ownership rates are probably at the low-point for the rest of the year; if he's available in your league, get him immediately. Few gritty players have the ability to score like he does, and given that the Flyers are starting to find their mid-season groove, he won't be available for much longer.
Mike Ribeiro C, NSH - Much has been written about the Nashville center's problems off the ice, but little has been written about the greatly improved style of play he's been employing in his rise from the ashes -- a not-so-veiled reference to Phoenix. He's always put up a decent amount of PIM for such a skilled forward, but his year has greatly deviated from his norm. With three goals and 13 assists for 16 points in 29 games, he's having another stellar production year for someone on the wrong side of 35; what's more interesting is the 40 PIM he's already put up, and will likely continue to put up as the season progresses. He's almost eclipsed his career-high in that category, and we're just last the one-third mark of the year. If this keeps up, he'll be the best PIM-and-point scorer in the league, and with just a 13 percent ownership rating, it's mindboggling that he's still free almost everywhere. If you're a believer in riding the wave of a hot streak, Ribeiro's fantasy totals have gotten almost no fanfare (yet). Get him before that changes.
Dion Phaneuf D, TOR - Coach Mike Babcock's arrival to Toronto has seen a different Dion Phaneuf than Maple Leaf fans are used to seeing. Instead of playing 30-plus minutes a game, Phaneuf has seen reduced ice time, and a levelling of responsibilities with up-and-coming stud Morgan Reilly. The result: a much more relaxed and truculent Dion, one that has played a far more physical and punishing brand of hockey than seen in recent memory. In 28 games this year, the Toronto captain has two goals and 14 assists for 16 points, a respectable minus-one, and 34 PIM. Those numbers have him hovering around the 100 mark in ranking in most leagues, and ownership often reflecting the heightened performance. Still, he's the most available defenseman in the top 25 in the league, and is a solid bet if you're looking for a gritty defenseman.
Jacob Trouba D, WPG - This year has seen the 21-year-old Jet defenseman take a gigantic leap in physical play, seemingly out of the blue. He's played less than half the amount of games he played last year, and has already eclipsed his previous year totals in the penalty box. In 30 games this year, he has two goals and five assists for seven points, to go along with his prodigious 42 PIM. It seems that his recent dedication to the physical arts has come at the expense of his offensive abilities, but he has historically been a late-season producer. It seems that, should he finally find the balance between grit and offense, he could be a powerfully dynamic rearguard that could find his way into the top 25. That remains to be seen though at this time, and his ownership percentages reflect this ambiguity. With 41% ownership, he's rarer than he should be for someone ranked in the high 300s, but his likelihood of success in the new year is too good to pass up for many fantasy GMs. Watch him closely, and invest when his production gets the New Year bump.
Alex Edler D, VAN - Easily the most confusing blueliner in the league in terms of fantasy performance. Only two years removed from his 49-point performance in 2011-2012, Edler saw a two-year slump under coach John Tortorella, where he recorded a near-league-worst minus-39. Following Tortorella's unceremonious departure to anywhere-but-here, Edler has seen a true renaissance. Last year's uptick has been mirrored in this year, where he has six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 29 games, along with a surprising 28 PIM. Never one to get his nose terribly dirty, it seems the only positive takeaway he got from Torts was a dedication to playing with a bit of nastiness. He's on pace this year to obliterate his career high in PIM, while also finding his way back to the precipice of the 50-point plateau. Quizzically, he's also strangely available for a defenseman ranked under 100 -- his ownership rate is only 75 percent. If he's available in your league, do yourself a favor -- get him now.