NHL: The Enforcer’s Role in Today’s NHL


Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Do enforcers still play a role in today’s NHL? Yes. They do. Fighting is a necessary evil in hockey.

What happened to all the enforcers in the NHL? A lot of people are saying that it’s the end of days for enforcers in the league, and it’s sort of a topic that has various opinions to it. The game as we know it is getting faster, it’s getting more advanced with each passing season. Teams are beginning to use Corsi and advanced stats to determine whether or not to sign players. That’s something Paul Bissonnette, a fan favorite enforcer known as Biznasty, calls hogwash. The Players Tribune did an interview with Bissonnette. 

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"“Half the teams in the league have pretty much said, “We’re done with the fighters and mutants,” under the assumption (or hope) that other teams will follow suit. But where this falls apart is when other teams have players who can both fight and play at a world-class level. That’s a clear advantage.”"

A player who fights and plays at a world class level is tough to find in current day NHL. I know some people are ready to yell at their computer claiming that Tom Wilson is just that. We’ll get to him. More from the interview with Bissonnette:

"“It’s interesting that the popular opinion on what type of roster you need to build in order to have a winning team seems to shift over time. When people saw Boston win the Cup, the model became to build big, tough, strong teams that could forecheck hard and wear opponents down. And then you start seeing teams like Tampa and Chicago have success, and suddenly teams start thinking they don’t need fighters in order to win, they just need four lines of guys who can skate and buzz around. Then L.A. wins it, and people notice that they got all these big mutants up front, and then other teams try to mimic that. Winning has such an impact on what people think, but there’s no perfect formula. Despite that, you have a bunch of organizations trying to conjure one.”"

The best part of that quote to me is where he states “there’s no perfect formula”, because there isn’t, and he’s absolutely right, winning has a huge impact on what people think. If a team consisting of multiple enforcers was to the win Stanley Cup, everyone would jump ship saying that enforcers are a huge part of a team’s success. However, the NHL is analytics centered now, and that is what’s killing off the enforcers in the league.

It seems like skilled players in the NHL get a pass as long as they have great possession numbers. Players who wear down their opponents are often unappreciated and are slowly being moved out of the NHL.

Here’s the hot take. Enforcers in today’s NHL are still necessary. Bissonnette states that they serve as a “distraction to a distraction” and that it’s like “really physical chess”. He’s right, for example, a player is put out to neutralize a team’s superstar. It becomes another player’s job to go out to neutralize the player who’s job is to neutralize the superstar. A distraction to the distraction.

We have players in the league who are frequently getting suspended for illegal hits. One of those players is Raffi Torres of the San Jose Sharks. Torres was just recently suspended 41 games for an illegal hit to the head of Jakub Silfverberg. That’s half of an NHL season. Torres is a repeat offender and has been suspended plenty of times before for similar situations. The Sharks were actually looking forward to having an enforcer like Torres on the roster this year. They were aware of his actions prior.

People often ask, “why are these players in the league if they intentionally injure other players?” Well, you can look at it in two ways. The first way is that these people are awful people who want nothing to more than to injure the competition. Guys like that include Torres and Zac Rinaldo. You can also look at it and say these guys are playing hockey. Someone is going get hurt. Some dudes hit harder than others, and often times they don’t make the best points of contact with their hits.

Let’s take a look at the Torres hit.

You can clearly see the initial point of contact is the head, but Torres doesn’t stop after contact, he literally drives through Silfverberg’s head with his shoulder. He’s done this before numerous times. This is not an example of a useful enforcer in the league. This is not an example of the enforcers I’m talking about.

Prospect Harley Haggarty wrote an article for The Players Tribune, where he talks about fighting to fight.

"” When I came off the bench, it was to either give or receive a black eye. Watching hockey as a fan from the other side of the glass, you see two huge guys bashing on each other in the heat of the moment, and you think they must have some hatred for one another. But fighting isn’t exactly what it seems. Usually, it’s as drawn-up and calculated as a well-executed power play.”"

Haggarty asks himself the question “why do we fight?” He says sometimes it’s to get back into the game. He goes on to say he leaves it all out there so his teammates will too. That is a really important part about fighting in today’s NHL. You go down a few goals and suddenly the team is deflated and looking for some sort of answer. They turn to the enforcer to start a fight to rally the team around it. Now of course a fight doesn’t turn the game around as well as a goal, because unlike goals, fights only go on the score sheet as penalty minutes.

I’m going to use The Players Tribune as a go-to for this article because NHL players are sitting down and writing about these things. There’s no better way to talk about these things than to talk about them with quotes from the players themselves who have experienced these things.

Brandon Prust says the following in an interview with the Player’s Tribune.

"“The NHL needs fighting to keep the game safe”"

Prust explains that statement by saying that without fighting, there is no consequence for players who take cheap shots. There would be no consequence for someone injuring another player. As an enforcer, it’s Prust’s duty to let everyone watching know that it isn’t okay to make those cheap hits on players. Everyone is watching. The fans, people at home, your own teammates, and the league. Enforcers are here to make sure these hits don’t happen without consequence.

"“There’s a mutual respect between enforcers. Guys who don’t honor the code are called rats. Rats are the guys who show zero respect for opponents. They’ll go after the top skill player and take runs at goalies and then won’t answer the bell when it comes time to fight. They’ll act tough, but when a tough guy comes knocking on the door, they skate away.” – Brandon Prust"

The important thing for people to realize is that there is a difference between enforcers and rats. There’s also a difference between enforcers and goons. Enforcers protect their teammates. Enforcers are great teammates because they stand up for them. They often have a great deal of respect for other enforcers.

Prust also says something that Harley Haggarty said, he says that there is a lot of build up and strategy that goes into fighting.

Here’s a Brandon Prust late hit on Derek Stepan. Prust says that Stepan is actually one of his closest friends on the Rangers, and didn’t know it was Stepan until he hit him. All he saw was a player coming up the middle. It was a late hit and a cheap shot, but Prust wasn’t a rat about it. Stepan broke his jaw on the hit, and came back and finished the game.

After the game, Prust was texting Stepan to make sure he was okay. The Rangers ending up winning the series, and in the handshake line, Prust and Stepan hugged it out. Prust said, “we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This is hockey. It needs enforcers and fighting. You can’t take away something like this from the game and expect it become safer, because these guys are the ones keeping it safe. Taking away the guys who answer the bell for their teammates are the exterminators to the rats. Does the NHL have a rat problem? Not as big as some people think it is. Would it be worse without these enforcers? Absolutely.

Enforcers in recent years have become more skilled. There are guys like Wilson, Milan Lucic, Prust, and Matt Beleskey who are skilled guys who can fight. Arizona Coyotes rookie forward Max Domi (Tie Domi‘s son) is the same way. The NHL would not be a safe place if there was no way to hold players accountable. Fighting does that. Without fighting, cheap shots would bring about more cheap shots.

I’d be willing to bet that more players get injured because of cheap shots than fights. I think the NHL is moving slowly away from pure goons. But fighting will never disappear from the NHL.

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