Behind the bench: The end of the enforcer

For the first time in 43 years, the Philadelphia Flyers’ opening-day roster did not include an enforcer.The Toronto Maple Leafs followed suit by sending both of their tough guys, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, to the minor leagues. These moves prompted conversations across the NHL as many started to question whether this marked the beginning of the end for hockey enforcers.

Until recently, the enforcer was seen as the insurance policy for a team. The opponent would be scared to take liberties with a team’s star players, knowing that a six-foot-three, 250-pound bruiser was on the bench, waiting to retaliate. This scenario, however, is not always the case. Superstar forward Sidney Crosby was the victim of a targeted hit to the head during the 2011 Winter Classic, regardless of the fact that Michael Rupp, Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer and Crosby’s teammate, was on the roster that day. In 2010, Boston  Bruins forward Marc Savard suffered a career-ending blow to the head at the hands of Matt Cooke, even though Bruins’ tough guy Shawn Thornton was playing that night. Evidently, the presence of enforcers no longer guarantees protection from the hits and cheap shots that are a part of hockey. Most hockey fights are staged and rarely intimidate the opponent. This begs the following question: If an enforcer cannot protect his teammates, what value does he bring to his team?

The rise of analytics has taken the hockey world by storm. The efficiency of a player is no longer based solely on goal scoring, point production, or even blocked shots. Advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick quantify a player’s proficiency based on the quality of possession that he creates. Everything from shot attempts to scoring chances is taken into consideration when determining player performance. As analytically inclined front offices rush to sign players who will hold onto the puck longer, offensively challenged enforcers are finding themselves out of jobs.

The value of sending a once-a-game ‘message’ to your opponent is rapidly diminishing in a landscape that requires depth across the roster. Skill and speed are what win games in today’s NHL. After their second-round exit against the Montreal Canadiens, Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli put emphasis on acquiring faster players. He let Thornton leave via free agency, possibly ushering in a new era for Bruins hockey. As offence becomes more scarce, clubs will prioritize players who can help them on the scoreboard as opposed to those who spend most of their night on the bench, only to hit the ice for a minute-long fight before retreating to the dressing room.

The beauty of the role that enforcers play does not come from watching two men beat each other to the ice, it comes from the spontaneity of it. Fans see a situation escalate to the point where both anger and pride lead to gloves dropping. We have probably seen the last of the prototypical enforcers that brought fame to nicknames like the ‘Broad Street Bullies;’ however, ‘hybrid enforcers’ such as Wayne Simmonds are beginning to emerge. They are power forwards who can drop their gloves when need be, but possess the right set of skills to stay employed at the highest level of hockey.

It is not easy to make it to the NHL, and it is even harder to stay. Tough guys have their place in the NHL, it’s just a matter of whether they are capable of contributing to the team’s success when their gloves are kept on.

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