I would argue that toughness is a very subjective and slightly idiotic term. What I think people mean when they say toughness is that a player is more willing to hit and fight. As a team, I don't think having an abundance of those players is helpful. I think having one or two guys might be okay. But I think it's much better to have a group of skilled guys and coach them to play more physically.
I would also argue that skill is far more important to winning. Looking back at Stanley Cup winners, most of them have had some of the most talented players in the league. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby, Carlson, Kuznetsov.... Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang, Fleury.... Kane, Toews, Keith.
People will argue that a guy like Tom Wilson helps Washington win the Cup. He prevents people from taking liberties on their star players and also puts the fear of God on the other team. Okay. He's also a boat anchor in terms of scoring and possession. He plays on Ovie's line and scores somewhere under 0.5 ppg. While taking a boatload of penalties. Boatload. However, Washington wins the Cup, so their formula (and Wilson's narrative) proves itself. Tom Wilson also gets a ridiculous contract for a player of his talent out of that narrative.
What about all the other "tough/big" teams that didn't win the Cup last year? Why aren't we talking about the Jets? The Jets were one of the biggest teams in the league last year. They got curb-stomped by Vegas. Why aren't we talking about the Ducks? The reason we're not talking about them is because they didn't win the Cup. If the Caps don't win the Cup last year, nobody talks about Wilson as this pivotal player to free up Ovie to do his thing. He's regarded as the boat anchor that he actually is.
As an FYI, the top 5 teams in hits last year? Montreal, Edmonton, LA, Arizona, and Ottawa. Not exactly elite company.
What I would like to see on our team, wrt "toughness" is two things.:
1) I would like to see our guys standing up for each other. If someone takes a run at a teammate, any teammate, stand up for him. I can't believe how often Freddie gets run or someone lays a questionable hit and nothing is done about it. Johnsson got wallpapered by Max Domi and nobody did anything. Max Domi! It's not like you have to fight Boogard. Fucking stand up for your teammates. Go lose a fight and take an instigator. Who cares? This even stems back to Phaneuf. He would never drop the gloves. People always point to Kadri, which is great, but he's hardly the only one the Leafs that can fight. And if you're not going to fight, at least go out the next shift and thump a couple of bodies to stand up for yourselves.
2) I would like to see our bigger guys using their bodies a bit more. I don't even mean with hits, I just mean that these bigger guys could easily play a more physical game. Matthews is a big guy. Gauthier is a big guy. When we had him, JVR was a big guy. These guys never seem to use their bodies. Matthews put Shea Weber on his ass against Montreal and it was awesome. Everyone loves Ovie when he lays a big hit, but he didn't come into the league hitting like that. He realized that he had to be a bit more physical in addition to being a skilled player. Matthews could lay out some big hits pretty easily, and it would be awesome.
TLDR: I think it's better to teach skilled players to hit than to pay a "gritty tough guy" $5.2 M per season. Also, if you look at Tampa Bay - this is what they are doing. They currently sit 6th in hits and #1 in just about everything else.