Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
As the American Hockey League evolves themselves more and more into a highly skilled developmental league that competes with even Europe’s best rosters, the league has done its best to minimize the “goon factor” of the league. Enforcers who no longer have jobs at the top are spilling over into new roles, and that can sometimes have distracting consequences.
To combat this, the league has announced new rules for acts of fisticuffs. They are as follows:
Rule 46 (“Fighting”) / Rule 23 (“Game Misconducts”)
- Players who enter into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of a puck for a faceoff will be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to other penalties assessed.
- During the regular season, any player who incurs his 10th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for one (1) game. For each subsequent fighting major up to 13, the player shall also be suspended automatically for one (1) game.
- During the regular season, any player who incurs his 14th fighting major shall be suspended automatically, for two (2) games. For each subsequent fighting major, the player shall also be suspended automatically for two (2) games.
- In any instance where the opposing player was assessed an instigator penalty, the fighting major shall not count towards the players’ total for this rule.
The “fighting in hockey” debate is a tricky one. This is, after all, one of the only sports and probably the most popular of the small group that considers fighting to be on the “slight breaking of the rules” side of the spectrum, rather than an embarrassment to the league. But it’s been in the game for so long at so many levels and has been taught as part of the game for such a long time.
I’m not against a total ban, if only because I think it’s easier to ban fighting than it is to fire every single coach and general manager who still hires players to play for three shifts a night because they think an agreed on, emotionless scrap will “change the momentum” of the game. But since neither of these things appear to be happening, minimizing the amount of fights that are obviously staged is a step in the right direction. I do wonder if teams will find ways around this, though, like players did with the extra penalty for taking off helmets (by agreeing to both do it, or making it easy for the opponent to remove it “accidentally” at the start). Maybe players skate down the ice for a few seconds before dropping their gloves. Maybe the gooniest of teams start signing multiple enforcers. We’re going to have to see.
This isn’t something that is going to make the Toronto Marlies sweat, though. Last year saw fewer fights than any in team history, with just 27 scraps recorded, down from the previous record of 37 the year prior and 75 in 2014. Toronto’s most in a single season came back in 2009/10 when players dropped the gloves a whopping 95 times. This year’s “fight kings” were the Binghamton Senators, who had 71 bouts.
Rich Clune is the only player on the Marlies roster who would have qualified for suspension this year, having fought ten times in 49 games. What might surprise you, though, is that Clune was one of the first players in the league to praise the new rule on social media:
Save you reporters some time. The 10 fight limit and no fighting off the face-off rule is great. Fighting isn’t done, just guys who suck are
— Rich Clune (@richclune) July 7, 2016
Firstly, it’s not shocking that Clune is in favour of these rules. His 10 AHL fights and single NHL scrap are the fewest that’ he’s had since jumping up to the pros in 2007/08. He seems more focused than ever on actually playing the game, something that worked in Toronto’s favour in the second round of the playoffs. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him cut that down further. As for the faceoff rule, let’s look at his fight history this year.
|10/17/2015||Chris McKelvie||5||Mid Shift – Words and Shoves|
|10/24/2015||Mark Fraser||9||Mid Shift – Opponent Hit Retaliation|
|11/13/2015||Stefan Fournier||14||Mid Shift – Board Battle, Prior Words|
|11/29/2015||Brett Lernout||3||Mid Shift – Clune instigator & Misconduct|
|11/29/2015||Stefan Fournier||14||Mid Shift – Prior history, game effects|
|12/16/2015||Zack Stortini||13||Post Shift – Shift of battling|
|1/2/2016||Tanner Richard||1||End of Game – Shoves thrown, game effects|
|1/9/2016||Darren Kramer||16||Post Shift – Clune “extra poke” retaliation|
|1/16/2016||Zach Rinaldo||6||Post Active Shift – Hit Retaliation|
|3/5/2016||Joey Mormina||4||Post Shift – Opponent “extra poke” retaliation|
|3/6/2016||Alexander Grenier||3||Mid Shift – Opponent Hit Retaliation|
OFM = Opponent’s fighting majors (total, 15/16). All fight-related stats in this post via HockeyFights.com
Clune spent this entire year as a “fight when the situation needs it” enforcer, which is pretty much what you want in today’s game. None of Clune’s fights this year came off the draw, and they all came in “heat of the moment” situations. Clune fought out of emotion or immediate retaliation, not to “create momentum” or whatever your coach stuck in 1976 tells you wins a hockey game.
As for the “fighting isn’t done, just guys who suck are” bit, I decided to take a look at the stats of all of the suspension-qualifiable players in the AHL this year.
Estimated TOI, points/60, and GF%Rel stats from Prospect-Stats.com’s AHL page
Unsurprisingly, most of these players are extremely poor at point generation, don’t play a lot of minutes, and their lines are much worse at creating goals than others. That is, except for Clune, who Sheldon Keefe trusts to play an actual hockey role. Clune is the primary forechecker on his line, relied upon to loosen up pucks around the boards for Nikita Soshnikov or Frederik Gauthier to recover. Sometimes, he takes care of the puck moving too, as evidenced by the fact he has the second most goals and points of this group of 22 behind Adam Payerl. Clune is trusted with more ice time than most of his counterparts, has an estimated points per 60 well ahead of the pack, and is the only player with a relative GF% that’s in the positive, meaning his line was more effective at tilting the score in their favour than the rest of his teammates.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, Clune is probably an NHL quality bottom-six forward who doesn’t need to fight but does it because he’s more prone to annoying his opponents and is better suited going against a typical enforcer than his even more skilled and younger teammates. This rule change is perfect for him when you think about it; traditional goons won’t want to waste a fight on him, or jumping someone who doesn’t want to engage, and he can spend a few more minutes in a given game playing hockey instead of sitting in the penalty box.
In short, this rule isn’t the answer to hockey’s problems, but it’s a nice step in the right direction. The Marlies will almost entirely be unphased because they’re a highly skilled team that only fights when they need too, and their only “enforcer” happens to probably be the only enforcer in the league who would be worth keeping if the practice was banned entirely.