Team Toughness: The Issue That Can Be Fixed Internally

One of the emerging themes in this current slump for the Rangers is the concept of "team toughness." More specifically, that this team lacks it. Everyone is going to have a different definition of the term, but for me "team toughness" equates the not simply fighting but a general philosophy. It encompasses a number of aspects of the game: sure, sticking up for teammates, but persistences along the boards. Tenacity every shift. The Rangers had all of that going for them last season. They weren't the most skilled team, they may not have good games, but one thing that was certain was that teams were going to have to work hard for a full 60 minutes in order to earn a victory over the 2011-2012 Rangers. As Marty Biron said after the most recent loss in Montreal, the team has to get back to being difficult to play against.

Some people have pointed out the losses of Prust and Dubinsky, and to a lesser extent Rupp and Fedotenko, as the reason why the team isn't showing that same tenacity, toughness, and heart. It's a fair point, as those guys certainly encaptured some or all of those qualities. What needs to be kept in perspective, though, is that Dubinsky and Prust, the more important of the four, became the players they are today (or last season) over time. Sure, both Dubinsky and Prust have always had an edge to their game. In Brandon Prust's case especially. Prust's career was in limbo prior to coming to the Rangers. He had multiple stints with the Flames and Coyotes, neither team willing to play him for more than half of a season. Neither team willing to keep him consistently in the lineup. He came to the Rangers as a filler; the real player the Rangers were after was Olli Jokinen, and Prust was brought in more or less as a warm body. And over the course of multiple years with the Rangers, Prust went from a journeyman AHL call-up without an identity to a regular in the Rangers' lineup to a key figure on a contending team. Of course, some combination of luck and being a late bloomer played its role in Prust's emergence, but it was moreso that John Tortorella pushed the right buttons with Prust, helped build his confidence and role with the team, and of course Prust's own determination was necessary. 

Another case study worth looking at is Dan Girardi. It was only a few years ago that this incident occured.

 

A younger Dan Girardi watched on as Philadelphia Flyers pest and experienced fighter Dan Carcillo more or less had his way with Marian Gaborik. It was the highlight of a season in which a Rangers team was accused of being soft. John Tortorella implied to the media that he called out Girardi and the team in general after the game in the locker room. Rangers fans were infuriated, and many believed – or even wished – that Dan Girardi, a restricted free at the end of the season, would be gone in the offseason. Girardi admitted that he failed to step up because he was "reluctant" and that it was the wrong decision. 

The Rangers later met up with the Flyers in the second-to-last game of the season; a game that the Rangers HAD to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. Another Flyers agitator and overall physical player, Scott Hartnell, threw a big hit on Artem Anisimov. Here is the incident and how Dan Girardi responded this time:
 

 

Girardi skated halfway across the ice, challenged the much more experienced fighter, and then proceeded to bloody his face and score a clear victory. Since then and over time, Girardi has earned the reputation from Rangers fans and even throughout the league as one of the most selfless, hardest working players. He is the epitome of "toughness." He blocks an incredible number of shots, then stays to finish his shift despite half of his body hurting. He's missed only three games in his entire career despite how banged up he is for most of them. While he may not be a fighter, he stands up for his teammates and especially goaltender and doesn't get intimidated by anyone. Once maligned by Rangers fans for shying away from protecting the team's star player, nobody would accuse Dan Girardi of being "soft" or lacking "toughness" today.

Which brings us to the current incarnation of the Rangers. It's apparent that they haven't been playing with that same tenacity and heart. That same "toughness." For sure the loss of some players has hurt the Rangers in that department. But the thing about intangibles like those are that they are a skill that can be learned, or matured. No matter how much time Stu Bickel spends practicing, he's never going to have a great wrist-shot. That's something that a player is born with to a degree or is learned at a very early age. But there's no inherent cap or limit on a player's "toughness." That is a "skill" that largely comes down to a player's mentality as well as a leadership that pushes the right buttons. John Tortorella needs to hold the young players accountable on this front, just like he did with a young Dan Girardi. Callahan, Girardi, Staal, and Lundqvist, the veterans of this team who have earned their stature through hard work and the right mentality, need to challenge their teammates to show more passion. We can debate all day about whether the team is no longer "listening" to Tortorella's message, but there is not a single player in the NHL who would not be affected if told by Ryan Callahan or Henrik Lundqvist to pick it up. Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan, Michael Del Zotto, and Carl Hagelin are no longer feeling their way around the league. They need to find it within themselves to be more dedicated to the physical part of the game, to be more consistent every shift, and to not let the team get pushed around. 

This team lost some battlers from last season; that is certain. But some of those guys became what they are today over time with the Rangers. It's not as simple as flicking a switch and enjoying success overnight, but this is not a problem that can't be solved internally. It's starts at the top with Tortorella and Sullivan and trickles down to the veterans of this team and ultimately to the younger guys themselves. Who's going to be the guy that follows in Brandon Prust or Dan Girardi's footsteps? Maybe they can't assume that identity right away, but a Michael Del Zotto or Anton Stralman can stand up for a teammate who took a questionable hit. A Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle, or Chris Kreider can put together a string of games where they show hard work every shift. It took the Rangers only a season, season-and-a-half at most to go from an organization that was drafting Dylan McIlrath because of how soft it was to the hardest working, most difficult team to face in the league. This is not a problem that needs to or should be fixed through trades and signings and other Glen Sather wizardry. The components to get the "team toughness" back exist in the locker room right now. It's up to the coaches and players to make it appear. 

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