Sandpaper. Grit. An edge. It seemed quite evident from the moves made back in the summer by Darcy Regier that the organization was intent on becoming harder to play against. Regier told us as much when he came by to visit at one point last spring after the season had ended.
Out goes Derek Roy, in comes Steve Ott. A straight up skill for grit swap. The signing of giant John Scott is also pointed to as a newfound commitment to being tougher.
Problem is, there are all kinds of toughness. I can get myself tied up in knots trying to figure out exactly how much a one dimensional tough guy who plays 3 minutes a night is going to make you harder to play against. I'll accept that smaller players feel more comfortable knowing they have an Atom Bomb on the end of the bench waiting to be set off should the opposition be foolish enough to actually try something stupid.
But jumping guys who hit your other players from behind doesn't in and of itself make you harder to play against. What makes you harder to play against is most of your players, well, playing hard. That means playing hard all over the ice. Like you so often hear Lindy Ruff say, it means being hard on pucks.
Rob Ray did a great job of highlighting an example of the Sabres not doing this the other night. Forgive me, I don't recall which game it was in, they've already started to blend together. Great sign, right? Anyways, a Sabres D man, I believe it was Sulzer, was in a battle for the puck near his own blue line. Kind of a 50/50 looking sort of play. A pair of Sabres just sort of coasted past, making circles while a pair of opposing players stopped, waiting for the puck to perhaps pop free, which eventually it did. Simple little play, that if it's made, makes you harder to play against. You're going to have to battle for this puck, mister. Instead, Sabres players are carving figure eights. Maybe because stopping and starting is harder. Maybe because they're not heady enough to realize what the right play to make is.
I know, one tiny example. Tough to draw any conclusions based on such a small sample size. But just consider the possibility of this play being duplicated a few times a game. Or maybe a dozen times per game. You know what that makes you? Not hard to play against.
These are the kinds of plays good teams make all night long. We never notice them because they seem to just sort of blend in over the course of a game. Make that sort of play consistently over the course of a game and you have taken a step towards being hard to play against.
There is no more annoying player to face than the one who keeps working on you after you think you have him beat. The place this comes most into play is on the defensive side of the game. Playing offense is fun because there's scoring and glory and money and sometimes people throw their hats on the ice if you've had a really great night. Nobody throws anything at you for doggedly working in your own end. But your opponent is going to the bench swearing under his breath because you are so hard to play against.
Going into games Wednesday night, the Sabres were last in goals against. Buck. Naked. Last. That sports fans, is pathetic. It is indicative of a team that is not selling out to play defense. A team that is not selling out to play defense is not hard to play against.
Look, I love the physical stuff. Big hits and yapping at guys to try and get in there heads can contribute to making you a tougher team to play against. Speaking of this, where are you Steve Ott? Picking a fight down 5-1 in Montreal isn't exactly what I had in mind.
Anyways, lots of things have to be present to make you tougher to play against. Exacting revenge for wrongs done and throwing rights at other one dimensional tough guys barely scratches the surface.