The Evolution of the Enforcer

Boll vs Glass (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

We all love fighting in hockey, as long as it’s not staged. Emotions overflow, two guys just get in each other’s faces and won’t back down; but a whole team built to push the entire league around and win a championship? That doesn’t happen very often.

A lot has been made of the need for skill and speed being the future of the NHL. But GMs consistently reward players who do not bring those traits to the game. “Tough guys” are routinely given money that borders on the absurd to do something that is statistically proven to not give your team an edge from game to game.

Milan Lucic cashed in a 5 year deal, Kris Russell a 4 year contract, how about Chris Neil stating that he still has multiple suitors willing to give him an NHL contract but he’s holding out preferring to stay in Ottawa?

For some reason Tampa gave Dan Girardi $3M a year after seeing him get run over in the post-season for three straight years. Albeit he looked borderline average this past year, people still see him as a valuable stay at home, physical defense-man. Weren’t they one of the teams that made him look bad in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals?

If anyone remembers, Alain Vigneault’s old team in Vancouver was built on the predication of speed and skill up and down the lineup would wear teams out and ultimately wield them a Cup… only to get pushed around by a bigger, stronger Boston Bruins team for 7 games. We’d see similar results when the Kings just manhandled teams in 2012 and yes, again in 2014.

Fontinato and Howe separated

Here’s the thing though… Boston has started a full rebuild. That last Kings team was said to be the start of a dynasty… they’ve won exactly ONE playoff game since Mats Zuccarello failed to back-check Alec Martinez. Montreal tried to load up on size over talent and the Rangers easily dispatched them in both speed, strength, and skill. The only reason the series was close was that Carey Price is without a doubt the best goalie in the world.

But GMs still can’t stop themselves with the mentality that they need to protect their star players with goons. To a point they’re not wrong; head-shots are still a part of the game and I doubt we’ll ever see an NHL without them, the game is simply just too fast (and getting faster) to have it not happen on occasion.

So where am I going with these examples?

The game has changed. There’s no more room on rosters for the Ryan Hollwegs, Joey Kocurs, Colton Orrs, nor would I ever wish to see Matt Cooke in the league again.

The enforcer role needs to evolve, and it’s happening, slowly. There’s still plenty of power forwards out there (that we all hate because they don’t play for our team) that are the modern day enforcer: They grind in the corners, hit hard in open ice, and still have the skill to make a team pay for trying to retaliate. Guys like Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Milan Lucic, Chris Kreider, Alex Ovechkin, Jamie Benn, are the ideal “Power Forward” that GMs should be moving heaven and earth to get onto their rosters.

A player like Tanner Glass, while sometimes providing the spark and energy is needed, is a waste of a roster spot in the modern NHL. If your coaching staff can’t get a team motivated to take the ice then your coaching staff is at fault; not the players, not the fans, not the newly renovated arena. If they need a guy like Glass, Brandon Prust, Arron Asham, or Donald Brashear [barf], who bring nothing but fists to the table, then your team is at a disadvantage. Paying them multiple millions of dollars just adds to the crippling effect it can have on an organization for years to come.

So while these New York Rangers quite honestly needed someone to shake them out of apathy… it shouldn’t be from Tanner Glass, he is not the guy you should be leaning on in April to help you win games. Systematically, there’s a bigger issue if a 33 year old career borderline NHLer is the “spark plug” that makes your team concept work.

The Rangers had that in Sean Avery and his coach despised him for playing head games on the ice. It had won them more games than it had lost. A second line player who could still pass tape to tape and create offense by going to the front of the net and distract the other team’s top player and goaltender… I don’t think any general manager would turn down a player like that.

Again, these players provide a frustration to fan-bases across the league that the NHL as a whole is to blame. By the time they hit their UFA years their body is mostly spent. They start slowing down and meaningful production is harder to come by, even if the physicality is still there. Ask any fan in Edmonton if they’d trade you Lucic and Russell for a bag of pucks. In a heartbeat.

These types of players tend to get huge deals when they finally reach unrestricted free agency in their late 20s, but because of the mileage on them already, they mostly fizzle. Lucic hasn’t been the player he once was for well over 3 years now and was ejected out of Boston and LA; David Backes had to find a new team because St Louis saw the writing on the wall. Ryan Clowe, Scott Hartnell, Dan Carcillo, all of these types of players dropped off a cliff when it comes to production and health when they reached the years they’re supposed to be cashing in on the most.

It makes GMs look foolish for spending the kind of money they do on them. It gives unrealistic expectations when free agency does pry them away from a team that developed and blossomed with; perceived as the cog that makes the team go is a terrible connotation when production doesn’t match the money that’s being thrown at them.

The role of tough guy, fighting to protect the superstar on the roster is gone from the NHL. There simply isn’t room for it anymore. The game is too fast and the players with the skating ability and toughness to back it up are few and far between. The faster that GMs get on board with the idea of finding players who can be physical but still create scoring chances, the faster they recognize who their power forwards in the organization are. The faster they can train and develop them into the newest breed of enforcers…

The ones that make you pay on the scoreboard.

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