Authorâ€™s note: Fans of this feature are encouraged to check out this guest post I made for Oilers Refinery, on the naming of the new Winnipeg team. While they ultimately went with â€œJetsâ€ anyway, I think there were several good reasons to go in another direction.
Last Friday, veteran sportswriter Cam Cole was receiving some compliments on Twitter from fellow media members regarding this Canucks post-mortem heâ€™d put in that dayâ€™s Vancouver Sun. I read the following excerpt and was immediately baffled:
SO BITE ME: To those who wrote, obnoxiously and all-knowingly, excoriating the author for suggesting on opening night of the Canucksâ€™ season that before it was all over, they would regret not having an enforcer on the team: you may send apologies to the email address below.
The Boston Bruins beat on the Sedin twins mercilessly in the final, without fear of retribution, and anyone who couldnâ€™t have predicted that this would happen is living in the same new-age, speed-kills dream world the Canucks were last summer when they came out of camp without any conspicuous muscle.
I couldnâ€™t understand why people were so complimentary of something that was so obnoxiously arrogant, especially when itâ€™s also completely wrong. Iâ€™ve long believed that pure goons have no place in the modern NHL, especially on teams that hope to challenge for the Stanley Cup; Coleâ€™s article inspired me to dig a little deeper into why.
What does a modern enforcer do?
When people talk about enforcers, they tend to think of them in the model they grew up with in the â€˜70s and â€˜80s: a muscleman riding shotgun with a superstar, ready to pound on anyone who looks at him funny, or barring that, waiting to leap off the bench at the first sign of trouble. The prototype for this was John Ferguson, who played off-and-on with Jean Beliveau for a decade with the Montreal Canadiens of the 1960s. This concept, however, is clearly obsolete today. The NHL hasnâ€™t had a classic bench-emptier in nearly 25 years (ten-game suspensions tend to dampen the enthusiasm for them), and more to the point, putting a goon with your superstar is just gonna drag the star down. In todayâ€™s NHL, top lines donâ€™t tend to play against checking lines in the traditional matchup game: instead, they often play matched up against other teamsâ€™ top lines, with the idea being that the best defence is a good offence. Your stereotypical goon isnâ€™t very fleet of foot, being built for hard punches rather than deft movement. If 1/3 of your top line (or 1/2 of your top defensive pairing) is unable to keep up with the play, all theyâ€™re doing is hurting your starsâ€™ ability to do their jobs. Your stereotypical goon also tends to have hands of cement, and probably isnâ€™t able to finish off as many of the sweet passing plays and open chances that are provided by his more talented linemates. More plays will die with or because of him, meaning more time in the defensive zone, fewer goals for, and more goals against. Whatever minor benefits he might provide as a large body in front of the net or as a crasher in the corners is negated by the fact that he canâ€™t take advantage of his situation well enough to justify his presence.
In fact, most modern goons tend to be used in the exact opposite way as youâ€™d expect. From HockeyFights.com, the top eleven pugilists of 2010-11 (there was a tie at 10th) were:
Â·Â Â Â Â Â George Parros (ANA), 27 majors
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Zenon Konopka (NYI), 25
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Jared Boll (CBJ), 23
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Kyle Clifford (LAK) and Brandon Prust (NYR), 18
Â·Â Â Â Â Â B.J. Crombeen (STL), Derek Dorsett (CBJ), and Cam Janssen (STL), 17
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Cody McCormick (BUF), 16
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Brad Staubitz (MIN) and Kevin Westgarth (LAK), 15
I did some digging through NHL.comâ€™s stats pages and Behind the Netâ€™s advanced stats to see how they performed. These eleven players averaged about eight and a half minutes of even-strength ice time, 12 points, and a -7, and thatâ€™s with Prustâ€™s 29 points skewing the average. They tend to be among the worst on the team at putting up points, even accounting for the meagre ice time allotted: eight of the eleven ranked in the bottom three among forwards on their team in point production rate at even strength, and all were in the bottom half. They also tend to get outscored much more swiftly than any of their teammates: Â again, eight of the eleven ranked in the bottom three among forwards on their team in relative +/-1, and none were in the top half. Only four of the eleven goons played any significant special-teams time, about a minute and a half per game each on the PK. Otherwise, they played mostly fourth-line minutes at even-strength, and were almost never seen on the ice at the same time as a good player. The only exceptions here were Derek Dorsett, who played on a traditional checking unit with Sammy Pahlsson in Columbus, and Brandon Prust, whose line with Brian Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko played the second-toughest minutes after the Ryan Callahan line for New York and put up some okay numbers. Bottom line: most coaches donâ€™t trust their goons as far as they can throw them, because they arenâ€™t very good hockey players.
So why play them at all?
As stated before, the idea behind an enforcer was to intimidate players from the other team, discouraging them from making any significant contact with your star player. By dissuading heavy checking, you allow your star player more room to do his thing, thus allowing him to put up more points, help your team win, and so forth. This may have worked 30 years ago, but times have changed. As noted before, players can no longer come off the bench to start a fight without serving a hefty suspension. Players who start a fight uninvited often serve misconducts under the instigator rule, sometimes costing their team a power play and often putting them on the penalty kill. This means that the Matt Cookes of the league pretty much have carte blanche, because whatâ€™s a goon to do about him? Heâ€™s not on the ice at the same time as Cooke, and even if he is, Cooke just has to keep his gloves on and eat a couple of rights and heâ€™s earned his team a power play.
Most importantly, however, I donâ€™t think many players are intimidated by being punched in the face anymore, if they ever were. For example, back in the day, most guys didnâ€™t really block shots; they got out of the way so their goalie could see the puck to stop it. The odd defenceman would go down, with magazines or cotton baton stuffed in their shin pads to reduce bruising, especially during the playoffs, but it wasnâ€™t something commonly seen until the last decade or two. Now, everyone and his brother blocks shots with impunity: almost no oneâ€™s afraid to do it. So clearly, the threat of a bit of pain and injury isnâ€™t sufficient to deter most players from doing whatever they think will give their team an edge. Moreover, hockey players have always prided themselves on their absurd willingness to play through all but the most debilitating of injuries. Itâ€™s become an annual tradition to learn that at least half the players on an eliminated playoff team are in need of significant recovery time and/or surgery. Players actually need to be ordered not to play with concussions, and will often try to mislead doctors and trainers in an effort to avoid being benched. I just donâ€™t see fisticuffs as a sufficient deterrent for cheap shots.
Letâ€™s take a specific example from my team, the Oilers. After being one of the most-injured teams in the League last year, the Oilers brought in Steve MacIntyre to try to discourage players taking liberties with their stars, particularly the gaggle of youngsters whoâ€™d just joined the club. MacIntyre played in just 34 games, recorded only seven fights, and averaged three and a half minutes per game. Meanwhile, the Oilers were again one of the most-injured teams in the League. Their best player, Ales Hemsky, still missed significant time with concussion and shoulder problems, and in a cruel twist of irony, young star Taylor Hall wound up injuring himself for the rest of the season trying to fight one of the above eleven! So much for that deterrent.
So whatâ€™s a team to do if they need to get tougher?
Later in the article, Cole goes on to say more generally that the Canucks will need to get tougher if they want to win the Stanley Cup next year. While I donâ€™t know that thatâ€™s necessarily true (and Iâ€™ll get to that in a second), if they were to get tougher, the solution isnâ€™t to get a player whose only NHL-level talent is fighting. You need to get more physical players who can also take a regular shift in your top nine, preferably your top six: guys like Milan Lucic or Ryane Clowe, or to name an actual star, Jarome Iginla. They donâ€™t have to regularly beat people up in order to be tough, or to keep pests off the stars. They just have to be willing to go into a scrum and grab those players before they grab the stars, and similarly be willing to dish out a heavy hit to a pest to temporarily remove him from play. Like when dealing with a schoolyard bully, you donâ€™t have to scare someone to get them off your back; you just need to make it more trouble than itâ€™s worth.
As for the more specific question of what the Canucks need to do, Iâ€™m not sure getting bigger and tougher is necessarily going to address what went wrong. Look at how guys got hurt. Manny Malhotra? Freak accident. Ryan Kesler? Hockey play. Dan Hamhuis? Hockey play. Alex Edler? Hockey play. Mason Raymond? Got spun around while being hit late, but not in an obviously malicious way; the worst that hit deserved was two for interference. And on it goes. Getting physically tougher wonâ€™t address that. Getting mentally tougher might address their bizarre tendency to give up goals in bunches against both Chicago and Boston, and fail to come back against those teams where otherwise they were more than able to. Being more physical might help the Sedins get more room to establish their cycle, something the Bruins did an excellent job of stopping in the Finals, but even that might require more of a change in tactics than a change in physical makeup. Iâ€™m certainly not convinced that post-whistle shenanigans cost the Canucks the series in any direct, meaningful way, as has been implied by GM Mike Gilles: one could argue that more power plays might have swung a game, but with how abysmal the Canucksâ€™ PP was, Iâ€™m not sure more cracks at it would really have helped them, anyway.
At the end of the day, thereâ€™s just no room on the Canucksâ€™ roster â€“ nor, in my opinion, any NHL roster â€“ for a guy whose only role is fighting. That role has been bred out of the game with the current emphasis on speed and the shift in tactics towards â€œpower vs. powerâ€ matchups. If a guy canâ€™t keep up with a star, and the rules donâ€™t allow him to perform his role optimally, heâ€™s just not a useful part, and should be replaced with someone who can be physical without hurting his team. While I understand and sympathize with the more traditional way of thinking, thatâ€™s just not the way hockey works anymore, and itâ€™s time to change our attitudes and move forward without the old-fashioned goon.
1 â€“ Relative +/- is the difference between a playerâ€™s on-ice +/- and off-ice +/- at even-strength, corrected for ice time.