Teams that don’t carry a designated goon, or “policeman”, are dominating the NHL. Teams with heavyweights are struggling. Are fighters on their way out?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are quickly becoming one of the best teams in the NHL thanks to the dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Detroit is back among the elite teams in the league. Pittsburgh and Washington, of course, are motoring along. Montreal, Vancouver, Dallas, and Columbus are all having excellent seasons to date.
And what do all these teams have in common? None of them have a designated goon, a policeman, a heavyweight, an enforcer, a talentless player who plays five minutes a game only to “keep the other team honest”.
And where are the goons? Derek Boogaard, who would certainly be the considered the worst signing over the summer had not the Flames re-signed Olli Jokinen, is with the Rangers. Zenon Konopka is with the Islanders, George Parros with Anaheim, Colton Orr in Toronto, David Clarkson with the Devils. All teams on the outside, looking in. The only exception to the rule is Philadelphia, not surprisingly, which has four players in the top 30 of penalty minutes (including Daniel Brière, showing that PIMs alone don’t define a goon).
In fact, Boogaard is well down the list with only 33 penalty minutes, but that’s because no one in their right mind would fight a guy half a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than any normal-sized NHLer.
The truth is that the top teams realize a goon is no longer an essential part of an NHL hockey game. The Red Wings, the most successful team in the league in the last 15 years, figured this out a long time ago. An integral part of that team, Steve Yzerman, brought that same mentality to the Lightning when he became the team’s GM this summer.
When he was hired, he didn’t say anything about needing to “get tougher” or the need to “add some grit and sandpaper” to the lineup. No. Instead, he signed Guy Boucher as his coach, bought out the contract of tough guy Todd Fedoruk, and then signed a core of skilled players, notably St. Louis, Pavel Kubina and Andrej Meszaros and traded for Simon Gagné.
Detroit, the perennial “European team”, has been without a goon since the departure of Bob Probert, but even he could be described as one of the most talented of his ilk. Boogaard, meanwhile, was signed by Rangers’ president and GM Glen Sather to a four-year contract worth a staggering $6.6 million, a sum as big as the player and just as smart. Boogaard averages 4:49 of ice time a game through the first quarter of the season.
Think of the teams that have won the Stanley Cup recently. Chicago last year. Enforcer? Ben Eager, perhaps, who had 120 PIMs in the regular season and all of 20 PIMs in 18 playoff games. Pittsburgh in 2009 and the Red Wings in 2008 could hardly lay claim to being “tough” teams, as could Carolina or Tampa Bay. The lone exception is Brian Burke’s Ducks team of 2007.
In truth, what does an enforcer do these days? So many of today’s fights are staged, they have nothing to do with determining the outcome of the game. It’s like a solo in jazz where the other musicians stop playing to allow one member of the band to showcase his technique for a minute or so. When was the last time a fight changed the tone of a meaningful game or had an impact on a playoff series? Not in the 21st century, that’s for sure.
And why would a coach put a goon on the bench to play him for five minutes when he could add some skill or checking prowess to his lineup? Indeed, if the goon is on his way out, perhaps he is being replaced by the superpest, the player who has a decent amount of skill, is small and not willing to fight a great deal, but who is good at needling the opposition. Think Steve Downie with the Lightning, Maxim Lapierre in Montreal, Alexandre Burrows in Vancouver, or the mother of all pests, Sean Avery with the Rangers, who is arguably mountains more effective than Boogaard.
International hockey has become such an important part of the season that it has also had a significant influence on the NHL game and its fans. Fighting is not accepted in IIHF sanctioned events and in European leagues. Players receive automatic game misconducts for engaging in fisticuffs, with possible supplemental action. Fans see the high quality of play at this level and are less impressed by the hopelessly outdated practice of fist fighting. And players today are so big and strong that the old palliative of “no one ever gets hurt in a fight” is simply not true.
Players on the receiving end, apart from cuts and bruises, often suffer concussions while the punch throwers subject themselves to broken hands or worse.
European players also make up a quarter of all NHLers, and, coming from a tradition of no-fighting, drop their gloves rarely. In short, fighting in the NHL now looks out of place. Two guys who tap each other on the shin and say, “wanna go?” is slowly becoming an embarrassing relic.
Fighters today lack most basic hockey skills. In truth, they are a liability on the ice, not able to do anything but fight. In the old days, the top tough guys could also score, from Dale Hunter to Tiger Williams to John Ferguson. Not so any more. Midway through last season, Montreal asked one-dimensional tough guy Georges Laraque simply to stay home as he became a burden and a distraction in the dressing room. He was desperate to justify his presence by fighting, but there was no one to fight. Laraque is now out of the game.
Hockey is all about speed these days, and the game is better for it. There are too many skilled kids coming into the league, too much worldwide talent of the highest calibre, for coaches and GMs to take the approach of needing to add toughness to a team. Goals beat toughness in 1920 and 1950 and 1980, and they beat toughness in 2010 as well. The days of the goon are numbered, whether the tough guys like it or not.
The author is a hockey historian and one of IIHF.com’s North American correspondents. Podnieks observes the game from Toronto, Canada.