The enforcer debate re-surfaced today, what with the wake of the Maple Leafs and Sabres brawl Sunday night, plus the Edmonton Oilers claiming Steve MacIntyre off of waivers

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To some degree, there’s a modicum of logic behind the utility of enforcers. With a tough guy on the bench, teams are going to be less likely to take runs at star players, knowing that any player is going to have to answer the bell. That era seems to have passed us, and the players that have become the most likely to take runs at others are the ones, ironically, designed to protect and serve the lineup.

John Scott has played 180 National Hockey League games. Among active players, he is the lowest in points scored among players with at least 150 games played, six behind Cam Janssen. He has scored one goal (somehow) and has 305 penalty minutes. Scott is designed to play with the Sabres for the purpose of protecting the Sabres from players like John Scott.

You can look at it from the other side as well. When Joffrey Lupul was concussed this past season, he took a hit from Philadelphia Flyers players Adam Hall and Jay Rosehill and collapsed into the boards. Leafs enforcer Colton Orr “responded” by fighting Rosehill. We have to ask what this accomplishes.

Colton Orr led the Leafs in fighting this past season, but he didn’t exactly take on A-1 opponents, or players that took liberties with Leaf players. Most of the players he fought are career enforcers: Scott, Deryk Engelland, Mike Rupp, Kevin Westgarth, George Parros, Chris Neil, Chris Thorburn, Patrick Kaleta, Shawn Thornton, Matt Kassian, Rosehill, and Eric Boulton. All 13 of those fights came in the 1st period of the game, and all but one of those fights occurred in the first 10 minutes. These aren’t fights designed to protect the Leafs lineup, these are staged fights that happen because most of the players listed above have a career fighting guys like Orr.

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If you look at it from another perspective, Scott is sent on the ice to fight… anybody, as it appears. There appears to be a lot of analysis in hindsight done by people that think Randy Carlyle made a mistake putting Phil Kessel on the ice lined up against Scott, but if you listen to the commentary before the brawl, this isn’t even a point glossed over by Joe Bowen and Harry Neale. A fight between Cory Tropp and Jamie Devane had just happened, and fights are generally expected to diffuse situations before they get even worse, and turn into, well, this:

Scott picks a fight with Kessel because Scott’s job is to pick a fight with anybody, be it Kessel, Devane, Orr, Ashton or Troy Bodie. It’s irrelevant to his purpose, and swinging a little at Kessel will guarantee that he gets to serve his worth by fighting a designated ‘enforcer’ on a later date in the season. What will that accomplish? Scott is big enough to be fearless, at 6’8″, he was the second tallest player in the NHL last season along with Zdeno Chara (6’9″), Joe Finley (6’8″) and Tyler Myers (6’8″). He was by far the heaviest at 270 lbs. Not much will scare him or deter him. He’s made a career of fighting the Orrs and Devanes of the world, and perhaps the way to neutralize him is to force him to play hockey, and his coach will figure the rest out.

But what about the Leafs this season?

I’ll admit that the Toronto Maple Leafs 2013 season runs a bit of a knot in my theory about fighting, but at a macro level, teams that increase the fighting workload by a noticeable amount rarely turn themselves into better hockey clubs. Teams that have a philosophical shift against fighting do better in the long run. This is counter-intuitive to what we saw out of the Maple Leafs last season, but their success icing a line strictly for fighting is an outlier. A similar focus this upcoming season doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot, only out-scoring the opponent will.

That is the crux of the argument. At some point you have to take an objective look at the data and ask what Colton Orr brings to the lineup. In the four years Orr has been a Leaf, the Leafs have won 44.4% of their games without Colton in the lineup and 42.4% with him. It’s not a significant difference. As SkinnyFish noted at Pension Plan Puppets this summer, the Leafs average 86 points per 82 games where Orr doesn’t dress, 78 points per game with Orr in the lineup but that drops to 74 points per game with Orr dropping the gloves.

Some commenters engaged me on Twitter yesterday, one pointing out that Kessel had his best season points-wise of his career. Naturally, it should ring true that Kessel would perform better in games with Orr in the lineup and at least there’s the threat of retribution if anybody messed with him, but that wasn’t true either. In the four games Orr didn’t dress this season, Kessel scored two goals and recorded four points. Kessel doesn’t seem to be affected, productive-wise, no matter whether Orr is in the lineup or not:

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  Games Goals/82 Pts/82 SOG/GP Shot %
With Orr 172 36.7 71.5 3.97 11.29%
Without Orr 117 32.2 76.4 3.63 10.82%

(Data from Hockey Reference Game Logs)

We’re talking about marginal increases and decreases in his production that are likely irrelevant to the whole story. In 112 games played on Thursdays, for instance, Kessel scores goals at a 30.0 rate per 82 games, while on Fridays, he scores at a rate of 47.6 [Yahoo]. That is nothing to do with Kessel being more comfortable on Thursdays than Fridays, and likely more to do with luck and small samples. Play enough games, and that evens out.

Toughness in General

Read these two game recaps of a Saturday contest between Edmonton and Vancouver. First, the recap out of Edmonton:

The Oilers philosophy is to punish opponents with speed, puck possession and skill, to play the game the right way, in other words. Which is laudable. But the regular season has not yet begun and there is graphic evidence that opponents have no compunction about short-circuiting that process by taking cheap shots at the Oilers, knowing the punishment will be minimal to non-existent.

And out of Vancouver:

With Tortorella emphasizing an aggressive forechecking system, his club responded. Bo Horvat stapled Darnell Nurse hard to the corner boards in the first period and the prized first-round pick was shaken up before returning. There were often two Canucks behind the Oilers net causing havoc early and they were often first on the puck. And with Dale Weise answering a fight challenge from Mike Brown after the Canucks winger took a minor for throwing an elbow to the head of Taylor Hall — and Mike Santorelli opening scoring and then blocking an ensuring shot off a 5-on-3 Oilers power play — there was something to build on.

If you were to wager a guess, which team won the game? The answer may shock and surprise you, but despite the Oilers getting pushed around mercilessly by those goons from the Canucks—leading to a concession of the first goal—the Oilers won quite convincingly. The only injury sustained by the Oilers was a freak slash by Zack Kassian coming right across Gagner’s jaw. I have seen Kassian attempt to stickhandle, and he cannot control his stick that well. Had he hit Gagner in the helmet or visor, nothing happens. Had he hit Gagner in the nose, Gagner breaks his nose, puts on a facecage and doesn’t miss a game. Hit him in the shoulders and there’s padding there. Kassian managed to find the sweet spot thanks to sheer dumb luck, and having the notorious face-puncher Mike Brown in the lineup didn’t protect Gagner in this instance. Zack Kassian is a crazy person.

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Marc Savard and Matt Cooke

Watch this hit:

On the ice for the Boston Bruins: Milan Lucic. On the bench and in the lineup for the Boston Bruins: Shawn Thornton. Result of the play: Marc Savard’s career ruined, and the next time the Pittsburgh Penguins and Bruins met, Thornton took retribution by fighting… Eric Godard. Seconds later, Gregory Campbell dropped the gloves against… Maxime Talbot. Adam McQuaid would finally come to Savard’s rescue and fought… Arron Asham. (As noted in the comments, Thornton actually did fight Matt Cooke 11 days later. That would appear to be the end of it. Savard still hasn’t played a game since, and Cooke has not changed.)

Cooke played 15 minutes and 23 shifts in that contest and managed to record an assist. His next contest in Boston, he recorded two assists—on the opening goal of the game and on the winning goal—and his only penalty was for interference. Campbell fought Craig Adams. Cooke managed 17:52 of ice-time in 23 shifts without having to engage in a fight.

(EDIT: Wow, somebody had to point out to me that Savard did in fact, play a few more games before he eventually had to stop. He was definitely never the same since this hit.)

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The replacement player

That’s only one instance, but hockey is littered with inconsistencies in discussions relevant to “The Code”, the unwritten book of hockey that judges who, when, and where players fight. While the role of the enforcer is a nod to the old-time hockey played by the Bruins and the Flyers of the 1970s, guys like Dave Schultz and Tiger Williams, the leading penalty minute-getters in that decade, scored… often. Schultz had a 20-goal season in 1974 and three consecutive 10-goal campaigns from 1976 to 1978. Williams started his career with eight consecutive seasons scoring in double digits, including three 20-goal and two 30-goal campaigns. The third highest PIM-getting among forwards in the 70s, Dennis Hextall, only scored fewer than 14 goals in a season when he played fewer than half the games.

As Tyler from mc79hockey pointed out in the summer of 2011, the role of a guy like Orr, or Scott, as a guy to defend and not quite create offence is a relatively new one, introduced during the 1980s but really picked up steam in the 1990s The 2000s gave rise to the ever-replaceable facepuncher, players that shift teams, get sent through waivers, and are eminently replaceable commodities. Compare the production of Schultz to that of, say, Shawn Thornton, a player that scored a 10-goal season and is lauded for being a player that can fight as well as play.

When the Vancouver Canucks lost Aaron Volpatti via waivers to the Washington Capitals last season, they responded by picking up Tom Sestito the next day. The Oilers claimed Steve MacIntyre via waivers today, while last season the Maple Leafs landed Frazer McLaren. Darcy Hordichuk went unclaimed. There are a lot of other examples, of course, but the point is that it’s hardly valuable breaking camp with a goon. There’s a chance you can pull one off the waiver wire in any given week if you have a particularly tough game coming up on the schedule. Enforcer Arron Asham has played for all five teams in the old Atlantic Division.


This post doesn’t necessarily wrap up, because it’s tough to find the right argument laid out by defenders of the enforcer to point out any flaws or inaccuracies. Hockey has become a game where any one player is pretty tough and can hold their own in a bar fight. A well-conditioned Phil Kessel has been in two fights in his NHL career and hasn’t taken a punch, but he did manage to bloody up the face of Bryan Flynn (Image 10), whom he engaged with after being separated from Scott.

There’s an important, and open-ended, question to be made about the value of enforcers. I think the game has progressed beyond the need for dedicated fighters. I’m generally anti-fighting, but more from a tactical perspective than anything else. I think teams would be better suited to taking risks on skilled fourth liners and dressing as many possible 15-goal scorers as they can. There’s an opportunity cost associated with dressing a player like Scott or Orr: it means you can’t dress a Mason Raymond or a Ryan Hamilton or whoever you have knocking on the door clamouring for an NHL roster spot.

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But if the threat of fighting fails to protect a player because the players committing the infractions are fighters… if fighting at a macro level fails to bring more wins to a team and fails to increase the production levels of star players in any meaningful way, why are we still talking about them? What is the use? I’m willing to learn and approach the question many different ways, but from the outside it’s a situation where wasting a roster spot is a tactical disadvantage.

I don’t know what the code is anymore [Pension Plan Puppets]
NHL enforcers are disappearing, and it doesn’t have to be easy [Sporting News]

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  • I agree with you on all points. However, I think the enforcer role used to be to prevent the other team from cheap shotting your star player. Does anyone know why that all started in the first place? The game seemed to be doing just fine before then although I wasn’t alive so I don’t really know.

    Maybe you could looking into “Star Player” injury rates when enforcers are dressed versus not dressed. Because I think that is the main reason they are wanted.

    But in hindsight, if I was Kessel or Crosby and I knew I was going to get my head taken off when I embarrass players with my extreme skill, I would probably not try as hard to score.

  • BayStParade

    I tend to agree that from the outside looking in, guys like Colton Orr and John Scott don’t directly help teams win games.

    But then I consider how pretty much every team has a heavyweight tough guy… and teams that don’t, go out and get one (i.e. Mtl- Parros, Edm- MacIntyre).

    I also read former NHLers say on twitter and blogs that enforcers are a needed part of the game (i.e. Brian Sutherby on this website, no less).

    It’s become really trendy these days to say that “goons play no role in hockey” and fighting should be banned, etc… but I don’t think these bloggers/journos truly know what role tough guys play, and how important their jobs seem to be that NHL GM’s and coaches keep signing them.

  • BayStParade

    What enforcers do accomplish is add more than a marginal increase in fan excitement. It’s all everyone is talking about today. You’ve gotta wonder when it’s MLSE, but does fighting fill the stands and add excitement where winning doesn’t?

    • Because I think there are tactical questions to be asked about a strategy that deliberately goes against the rules of the game?

      Again… I have no moral high ground here. I love watching MMA. I dispute the strategy involved. If Buffalo want John Scott out there, as somebody following the Leafs, my reaction is “great. Let him.”

      There’s no reason to be scared of John Scott. Kessel can just line up for the faceoff, and if Scott doesn’t anything, the ref will give him a misconduct if Kessel doesn’t reciprocate. That’s what’s lost in this: the rulebook is designed to protect players if applied correctly.

      • millzy09

        “There’s no reason to be scared of John Scott. Kessel can just line up for the faceoff, and if Scott doesn’t anything, the ref will give him a misconduct if Kessel doesn’t reciprocate. That’s what’s lost in this: the rulebook is designed to protect players if applied correctly.”

        Whoa, what!? How does saying out loud that a misconduct has been given stop John Scott from demolishing Kessel’s face? In what fantasy world does that work?

        Am I a fan of dressing two enforcers every night? No. But that doesn’t stop me from understanding their value. You go on about how this and that is affected by having a tough guy dressed vs not, but at the end of the day, you don’t know the outcome if the opposite scenario was in effect for any given game.

        I’ll take my experience of having big boys to help me out and the intangibles that they bring. I’ll also take a bonafide NHL player in Brian Sutherby telling me why they are important.

        At the end of the day, these enforcers are much better fighters than almost any remotely skilled player that fights. Players that can play and hang in there with the big boys are few and far between. I choose not to be embarrassed.

        • Jeremy Ian

          When you blow the whistle to call a game-misconduct, then a player has to stop his actions. If he doesn’t, then the officials will jump in to separate the players. If Scott keeps hitting Kessel, then he will get a longer suspension. If he keeps swinging when the officials get involved and hits one of them, then his suspension will be so much longer. The reason he fights is because it’s the only way he can make an NHL roster. If he becomes more trouble than he is worth, say, by hitting officials and being suspended for over a fourth of the season, then he’s cut. Why would he risk his job?

          • millzy09

            I understand how it’s “supposed” to work. If you think that is reality, you are delusional. Anyone that has played hockey or watches hockey knows that the whistle can be blasted until the ref is blue in the face, but it won’t stop people with high emotions from doing stupid things. Unless the linesmen have the speed of Superman and the arms of Stretch Armstrong, I’m not going to put my faith in them saving my life when a guy 6’8 270 is throwing dump trucks at me. The rules are there to attempt to control situations. It’s no different from the head shot rule….it’s not allowed but it still happens all the time.

  • So, let me get this straight… You write for a site called “Theleafsnation” that covers a team that LED THE LEAGUE IN FIGHTING MAJORS last year and you write about how enforcers aren’t needed.

    Its not like they also made the playoffs for the first time in 9 years.

    Oh wait.

    I think you might be clueless Cam Charron and I suggest to either learn about hockey or write about a different sport.

    Or at least change the name of your site…. You’re embarrassing leafs nation.

      • Jeremy Ian

        Last time I check 5th wasn’t last seed.

        Congratulations, you know who won the Stanley cup last year… I hope you aren’t suggesting the Leafs can match the Hawks skill-wise.

        Fighting majors? I think LA might have had a few, and Boston too.

        • Yes, because “bottom” means “last.” Or, perhaps it just means “bottom,” as in, the opposite of “top.” Top = 1-4, bottom = 5-8. Excellent job of knowing the English language.
          Also excellent job of recognizing process vs outcome. The Maples Leafs weren’t one of the best eight teams in the east last year, they just stayed afloat due to unsustainable shooting percentages that lasted the entire season due to a shortened season. It takes sixty games before the cream rises to the top. Good luck repeating that performance in a full season.
          See, an intelligent person would be thankful for good luck, certainly, but wouldn’t count on it again the following season. An intelligent person would try to make the team better, not think that last year’s team was great, and try to build this year’s team even more in that image. Your coach is rigid in how he approaches the game; rather than finding out how to best use his players, he figures out what players he wants and hamstrings his GM (if he was a good coach, his GM would only need to acquire good players). If his idea for a hockey team was a good one, that would be a problem but not an insurmountable one. Since it isn’t, I’m glad I’m not a Maple Leafs fan.
          By the way, LA was 21st in fighting majors last year. Only 2 teams fought less than Chicago. Of the final four in the playoffs, Boston was 4th, Detroit was 2nd from last, and Pittsburgh was middle of the pack. That means the average of those four teams was 19. He’s not saying the Leafs are as talented as the ‘Hawks, he’s saying they should try to be. Add talent, not bodies, that’s how you improve your team in the National Hockey League.

          • I had paragraphs when I wrote that; I guess I need to hit “enter” twice to have spaces between paragraphs. Noted.

            Also, realize I’m not saying that, as a fan, you shouldn’t be happy about outperforming your talent. Were my team to win the Cup, I wouldn’t care if we “deserved” it. However, the front office needs to do a good job of properly evaluating the roster in order to maximize the roster for the next year, and maximize your chances of defending the Cup. Luck will, of course, play a part in making the playoffs and having success in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean the front office should just throw up their hands and not try. Their job is to do the best job of assembling a roster as possible, and to hire the best coach they can to maximize the talent on that roster.

            If, as a fan, you don’t care about any of that, that’s fine. Just watch the games, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, don’t tell fans who analyze these things that they are wrong. We like to look further into the game to try to predict future success. You can do your thing, but let us do ours.

          • millzy09

            Bahahaha majior screw-up, you left yourself signed in as the other name Cam… You pretended to be someone else to have a fake rant… it was obvious when your alias failed to mention who their “team” was. Pretty pathetic dude, I would describe you as unitelligent. unintelligent. unintelligent.

          • I just assumed nobody cared if it wasn’t the Leafs (unless it was, like, the Sens, and I had some anti-Leafs bias); but since it doesn’t affect how I view the Leafs, I didn’t think it needed to be mentioned, and I figure nobody cares. Bottom line, I’m a fan of hockey first, my team 2nd.
            I also think you are majiorly unitelligent.

    • Average No. of fights for playoff teams: 22.8
      Average No. of fights for non-playoff teams: 23.4

      It’s not that cutting 0.6 fights is going to turn a non-playoff team into a playoff game, it’s that there’s reason to dispute everything about what fighters do and the tangible effect they have on players and the game.

      • Jeremy Ian

        Wow. 0.6 difference… That’s pretty impressive.

        Let me ask you, does your hockey knowledge go any farther then just googling stats and winning percentages?

        My suggestion (if you ever want to be taken seriously) would be to start writing relevant articles about the good things our players do for the team instead of these completely pointless negative-toned pieces whining about how some of the players don’t belong on the roster and what you think the game should change and blah blah blah.

        Randy Carlyle is the coach. There will be enforcers.

        Get used to it.

        • Jeremy Ian

          My suggestion to you, child, would be to read the entire comment, including the 2nd paragraph (you even included it without reading it) so that you can respond to a point that the person is making, rather than just setting up a straw-man argument for you to knock down. You know, if you want to be taken seriously.

    • Jeremy Ian

      I am guessing that writing about pugilists brings them out as prose stylists. Or is this just a coincidence?

      The key issue is about opportunity costs, especially when you have to watch your payroll.

      The correlation between fighting and winning is non-existent. Maybe there are other reasons, like drawing attention and fans; but it’s not like the Leafs need to draw blood to draw fans. Looks like a waste of scarce resources to me since the Leafs are finally spending money up to their limit, which is exactly what they should be doing. You really can’t have it both ways.

  • “That would appear to be the end of it. Savard still hasn’t played a game since, and Cooke has not changed.”

    0 Out of 2

    Marc Savard did play games after but after another concussion he hasn’t played since.

    And Matt Cooke did change, after getting suspended by the NHL for the 1st round playoffs 2011 against Montreal for another incident he has NOT be suspended since and is no longer considered an repeat offender by the NHL. He was REQUIRED by the Pittsburgh Penguins to change the way he hits in order to continue to play hockey for them and it’s not like any one else wanted him because no one wanted Matt Cooke especially after the Marc Savard hit.

    Now to my opinon. Enforcers will be in NHL as long the NHL allows teams to pretty much have these players. Even though it is “unhealthy” to have these players, players will forever will try to ruffle up star players to make sure they don’t have an impact on the game.

  • Jeremy Ian

    It is possible to be analytical and be a fan at the same time. The thing is, if you want your team to be better, it helps to do some analysis. The key paragraph is this:

    “But if the threat of fighting fails to protect a player because the players committing the infractions are fighters… if fighting at a macro level fails to bring more wins to a team and fails to increase the production levels of star players in any meaningful way, why are we still talking about them? What is the use? I’m willing to learn and approach the question many different ways, but from the outside it’s a situation where wasting a roster spot is a tactical disadvantage.”

    You may or may not agree with final analysis. But surely fans (myself included) want to see the team improved. Doing this requires evaluating what changes you can make at the margins (removing or adding one piece at a time under budget constraints). Seen in this light, enforcers’ marginal value to a team, especially if you’re bloated with them, is very very questionable. The point is, for the amount you pay the amount you get in return doesn’t warrant the investment.