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.
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.
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:
(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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.