If there is one place where the Leafs enjoy some measure of depth, it is among fourth liners. Mike Brown, Philippe Dupuis, Darryl Boyce, Mike Zigomanis, Joey Crabb, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill all played at the NHL level last year. Though one might expect this logjam to create uncertainty, if there is one article of faith (or perhaps resigned acceptance) among Leafs fans, it is that one of the three fourth line spots will be reserved for Colton Orr.
There are two traditional justifications for one-dimensional fighters at the NHL level: (1) fighters protect and provide space for skilled players ("protection"); and (2) fighters can inspire a team with a winning bout ("inspiration"). I intend to test those justifications.
Some of this work has already been done. Kent Wilson has examined the question from a more tactical perspective, noting that with the instigator rule goons can be effectively neutralized by simply putting out superior hockey players against them and declining invitations to fight. Given their inability to actually play hockey, goons are "costs without benefit". Doug Robertson and Cam Charron have similarly explained why there is no tactical role for goons in today’s NHL. Goons are almost never on the ice with skilled players and combined with the instigator rule, are largely unable to discipline someone who takes liberties with more-skilled teammates.
I intend to go a step further and look at whether these tactical arguments are borne out by the evidence. JP Nikota of Pension Plan Puppets has already tested the "inspiration" theory on a micro level, examining how the Leafs had fared in games with a fight. His conclusion, on an admittedly small sample, was that there was no measurable effect. I intend to look at the protection and inspiration theories on a macro level. Is there any discernible effect of fighting in general, and employing a “goon” in particular, over an entire season? Protection and inspiration may be classic "intangibles", but if they exist, they should produce either higher team point totals, or reduced man-games lost to injury. I have therefore plotted fighting majors against both point totals and man games lost due to injury* for 2010-2011. The red data points reflect teams with goons (defined as a player who had (1) 12 or more fights, and (2) less than ten minutes per game of ice time).
As these charts demonstrate, there is little if any relationship between team fighting majors and either points or man-games lost due to injury. If anything, the trend lines suggest that teams with more fights have less success and more injuries.
Interestingly, there may be a stronger relationship between the presence of a goon and injuries or success; but in the opposite direction of what fighting advocates preach. Overall, teams with a goon averaged 3.5 man-games lost due to injury and 88 points, while teams without a goon averaged 2.8 man-games lost due to injury and 94 points.
The analysis above does not prove causation, simply correlation. It is also only a one-year sample. I have only scratched the surface here. But what evidence there is suggests that goons do not help teams either in the standings or in the training room, and they may well hurt.
I do not question the value of team toughness. Justin Bourne has pointed out to me on Twitter that as a skilled player, he would never want to play for a team without any sandpaper because his wrists and ankles couldn’t handle it—the point being that the opposing team will take liberties with your skilled players if there is no one willing to reciprocate. However, I think both theory and the evidence suggest that the best way to do that is to have good hockey players who are also tough, not goons. The Detroit Red Wings have always featured plenty of gritty, tough players – dirty even – but I cannot remember the last time they featured a true goon. The Leafs should play the fourth liners who are actually good at playing hockey and feast on teams still unwise enough to put out fighters on skates.
* I am not aware of any public-available data on man-games lost due to injury, but James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail compiled statistics in March of last year based on team media notes. These do not reflect a full season but I believe they are good enough for the purposes of this article.