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Fighters of the Future: Are we drafting them?

September 1, 2011

Matt Carkner and Darcy Hordichuk.

Wade Belak’s death marks the third death of an NHL enforcer this summer. Three deaths, one summer. Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Belak made their way in the NHL by playing limited minutes, but minutes in which fighting played an important role. Their deaths are horrifying. Belak’s death seemed to leave more confusion in its wake than the previous two. Because now, whether true or not, it looks like an epidemic. And it raises questions about how we define hockey, and what we value in the sport.

In light of Wade Belak’s tragic death yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about whether fighting will exist in the NHL in five years, in ten years.

But not because of any NHL mandate, or because of any NHLPA brokering in the next CBA. Not because of mounting medical evidence of the effects of repeated head injuries.

Simply because I wondered if the players who would normally assume the task of fighting are not being drafted into the NHL at the rate they once were. Are the “tough guys” able to cut it in the post-lockout seven rounds of drafting? The emphasis on speed and skill post-lockout does little to favor the junior players who make their mark by fighting, right? With steady talent, is there a point where in the salary cap era having that “league minimum fighter” on the roster becomes unsustainable? “Agitators” or “pests” of the PK Subban, Alexandre Burrows and Brad Marchand variety, I think they are safe, and I think their role continues. For both those players are skilled. But what about the fighters?

And while I won’t make the distinction, I think it’s fair to say that fighters and enforcers are not a monolithic entity. Sean Avery is not Trevor Gillies, who is not Wade Belak, who is not Paul Bissonnette. There are a lot nuances.

But let’s talk about the fighters and the enforcers as a group, even if it’s not quite right. I wasn’t really sure where to begin in answering my own question, other than to look at recent drafts. My starting assumption, which I lack statistical data to back up, but I believe to be true, is that the vast majority of fighters and enforcers are North American, even more specifically, Canadian. Why? Simply because leagues in Europe (excluding the KHL, well then there’s Vityaz) take a dim view of fighting and penalize it heavily. The disincentives of fighting are abundantly clear to any Swede or Czech early in his development (David Krejci’s scrap with Mike Cammalleri notwithstanding). For Americans, especially those who take the NCAA, fighting is similarly viewed as a highly problematic endeavor. You’re handed a game misconduct. Fights still happen, but not at the rate they do in the major junior ranks of Canada. When players arrive in the NHL, they may have a disposition to fighting based upon this background.

But will they arrive? Is the enforcer going to be a dying breed? Can we even know as we sit here in 2011?

Hockeyfights.com provided their own 2011 draft guide for potential NHL fighters. While key players like Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan Beaulieu and Duncan Siemens were drafted high and also touted for their skilled games, most of the players further down went undrafted entirely. From 2010, The first name that popped into my mind was 10th overall selection of the Rangers, Dylan McIlrath. McIlrath was a surprise pick for many analysts. He is a WHL defenseman known as much for his pugilism as anything else, amassing 169 in his draft year. That Cam Fowler remained on the board and the Rangers picked McIlrath could be a one-off, or it could be an indication of how fighters are still valued. What I came to realize is that very few players are actually drafted on the merit of their fighting skills, at least in my research. It seems the fighting skill-set becomes more important, or exclusively associated, for and with a particular player as his career advances and other options close. If there was a chance of staying in the NHL and it involved fighting, some with that spark might take it. It’s a little bit random who ends up a fighter, who ends up out of the game altogether.

I took a quick peek at fighting statistics from the last decade, as provided by hockeyfights.com. These are probably not perfect, but I decided to use them. What I could discern was that there’s no solid trend to be found. Fights dipped significantly in the year immediately following the lockout. Was that simply because it was a down-year? Were there certain enforcers that were out of the lineup? What happened? Since that year, the percentage of games that include fights has remained fairly stable–between 37% and 41%. I was shocked it was actually that high. If you look at Kevin Allen of USA Today’s 2009 piece on fighting, the numbers are very different. Ah, but that is because he’s looking at fighting majors handed out, not actual fights, I realized. Already there’s a slight accounting dilemma. Indeed, how you choose to “count fights” is somewhat indicative of how you view fighting–in terms of the knuckles or the penalties.

This is merely anecdotal, but, Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager were acquired by the Edmonton Oilers this off-season for the purpose of providing that coveted “protection” to their small and skilled youth. The Bruins signed beloved Shawn Thornton to a two year, $1.6 million deal last year. Is this the status quo? Or will we see more players in the mold of Milan Lucic and Adam McQuaid making their way in the NHL–players who are skilled and can log big minutes, but players who will also drop the gloves from time to time? Is that the new fighting? Indeed, if fighting is undertaken by players who are better integrated into the game with regular lines and ice-time, perhaps there will be less fighting, or at least, more targeted fighting that is not staged, but, rather, meaningful. I should be clear: I don’t mind fights, in fact, I like them. I think they have a role in the game.

So my conclusions are these: I wasn’t able to draw any from the available data. Fighting is consistent, whether “enforcers” are drafted or make the NHL is a crapshoot, and we probably won’t know for a decade how this turns out.

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