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End of the Enforcer? The Dedicated Fighter Seems More Endangered Than Ever

This season will see even less enforcers than ever playing around the NHL. What does this mean for the future of the sport?

Joel Auerbach

On Tuesday, as a number of teams around the NHL were making roster and personnel moves in order to both get below the salary cap and down to the 23-player roster limit, the reality of where the game of hockey is headed started to truly become clear.

Teams across the NHL are making roster decisions based on the overall game and skill level of the players and fourth lines around the league no longer resemble the five-minute-per-game lines we were so accustomed to in years past.

Take the Dallas Stars fourth line this season: Vern Fiddler, Shawn Horcoff and any number of young and skilled wingers will make up a line likely to get between 8 and 10 minutes per game. It wasn't that long ago that we were likely to see Krys Barch, Brandon Segal or Aaron Downey or any other number of fringe NHL players who received a handful of minutes but were willing to drop the gloves as the primary part of their job.

Players like Krys Barch, Kevin Westgarth, Matt Kassian and George Parros are all without NHL jobs heading into the preseason, and suddenly more than half of he NHL will start the year without some sort of "enforcer" in the ranks -- the Dallas Stars included.

It's a trend we've seen in the NHL over the past several years, as both the backlash against the dangers of fighting as well as the simple economics of the league has necessitated changes in how the NHL and teams approach so-called "enforcers."

The NHL has attempted to guide the game away from the "staged fight" and in the AHL there are now much harsher restrictions on players who receive more than one fighting major in a game. The NHL has enacted rules that make fighting tougher to engage in, especially when you consider the rules regarding helmets and visors, and that resulted in the least amount of fights in the NHL last season we've seen since since 2005.

Season Games Fights*
Fights Per
Game
2013-14 1230 469 0.38
2012-13 720 347 0.48
2011-12 1230 546 0.44
2010-11 1230 645 0.52
2009-10 1230 714 0.58
2008-09 1230 734 0.6
2007-08 1230 664 0.54
2006-07 1230 497 0.4
2005-06 1230 466 0.38
2003-04 1230 789 0.64
2002-03 1230 668 0.54
2001-02 1230 803 0.65
2000-01 1230 684 0.56
Preseason Stats
Season Games Fights*
Fights Per
Game
2013-14 104 100 0.96
2011-12 108 72 0.67
2010-11 106 115 1.08
2009-10 109 164 1.5
2008-09 111 151 1.36
2007-08 105 121 1.15
2006-07 105 92 0.88
2005-06 111 108 0.97
2003-04 124 137 1.1
2002-03 120 143 1.19
2001-02 109 122 1.12
2000-01 122 126 1.03

*stats courtesy of hockeyfights.com

It's interesting to see the preseason numbers here and how much they differ compared to the regular season -- this is a time when players "on the bubble" are going to be willing to drop the gloves and prove themselves to their coaches and teammates -- of showing themselves willing to go that extra mile. When the season begins, however, fighting drops significantly across the board.

The simple economics of the league, and how important depth has become around the NHL, have also guided teams away from players who can't contribute more away from the fisticuffs. There is too much value in ice time and coaches are more and more unwilling to use a roster spot on a player he can't put on the ice more than five minutes a game.

There's an outcry from the players this shift in philosophy has affected, especially after this latest round of roster cuts -- that the "star" players will be targeted more than ever and there's no one out there to protect them.

The actual validity of whether enforcers were deterrents to targeting star players is questionable -- if anything, it just made the sport more violent because of the retributions and payback. See the infamous Anaheim and Dallas game from the 1990's or the Red Wings and Avalanche rivalries for prime examples of how the NHL could quickly turn into the WWE because of those "enforcers" patrolling the ice.

So now the question becomes how does this drop in fighting affect the growth of the sport? The safety and health-related aspects of this change in direction are known and obvious now, but there's a proven history that "casual" fans initially turned to hockey in the past because of how violent it was and how exciting the fights were.

Many here in Dallas will say that what initially sold the sport here wasn't just the high-flying goal-scoring of Mike Modano -- it was Derian Hatcher and Shane Churla knocking skulls around Reunion Arena giving any team that dared enter hesitation about what they were about to endure.

There are also those that are turned away from the violence of the sport -- that allowing players to openly engage in bareknuckle fist-fights like two gladiators upon the Colosseum dirt is too barbaric, especially given what we know now about the effects of fighting and brain injuries.

Which makes the backlash from the enforcers themselves interesting, seeing as how all of this is mostly due to protecting their own future. The NHL and hockey in general has slowly moved away from fighting, and the players have been forced to adjust. Some have, and some haven't.

While Krys Barch or Kevin Westgarth are frustrated by the lack of jobs for enforcers, Antoine Roussel has carved himself a nice spot in the NHL as a skilled and agitating forward who not only can drop the gloves when needed -- but has the skill to produce offensively and be effective in other parts of the game. He's developed an offensive skill set not present when we was coming up the ranks of the AHL -- and even from when he was with the Texas Stars.

Antoine Roussel, the agitating fighter, evolved his game, and now he's playing with a brand new four-year contract.

Fighting will likely always be a part of the sport, but likely never near what it once was. Is that a bad thing for the sport, or ultimately good for the health and growth of the NHL? Time will tell.