Earlier this summer, Wes and I got into a bit of a heated exchange about the role of the pure fighter on the NHL roster these days. The trend seems to be moving away from the one dimensional player, so the pure enforcer is disappearing off of NHL rosters left and right. But is that good for the game? What about for a smaller-sized Dallas Stars team currently? We sound off on this and much more in this edition of Matching Minors.
1. Wouldn't you gladly take any trade that involved getting Jamie Benn off the ice?
Wes: He's had 21 fights since 2007-2008, at least according to hockeyfights.com. That's 105 minutes in the penalty box, not counting things like Instigators or Misconducts, which would have required actual research, and therefore did not get investigated. Pardon me for bailing on the whole "leadership" bandwagon, but it sits funny in my gut. How on earth does the team's best player removing himself from play serve the Dallas Stars' best interests? Don't the Stars kind of need him out there making a difference?
I think back to the Calgary / Tampa Bay Cup Final, sort of the seminal moment in "Hey Look, Big Stars Fighting!" Do you think that maybe five more minutes of Jerome Iginla might have helped Calgary? It's not like the series was super close and ended in overtime or anything.
Taylor: With the "enforcer" going the way of the dodo bird in hockey, it's still important to have a guy that can stand up and send a message. And you better believe that when Jamie Benn, your captain, goes out there and has your back/takes out his frustration on Francois Beauchemin's face every single one of the Stars players takes notice. If your captain can go out there and do those things, then anyone on the roster has no excuses for why they cannot do the same.
Yes, I'd rather it not have to be Benn doing it - I'm scared he's going to break his hand one day in shenanigans and the team will wind up between a rock and a hard place - but Benn has kind of always been the "lead by example" type. He's not going to ask his teammates to do anything he wouldn't do himself. I think it also makes opposing players think twice about how they play him, since they know he'll punch their face in if the feeling comes over him. Plus, with the increase of support around him with guys like Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza the team isn't as bad off as it was, say, two years ago since there is more firepower behind him to make things happen while he sits in his little bin of sin.
2. But don't we get pissed at dumb penalties?
Wes: Retaliatory slashes, crap down-ice and away from the play; these are things that get a guy buried in the comments section. The reasoning seems pretty clear: they're thoughtless, unnecessary, and reduce the team's chances of winning. Penalties, furthermore, require penalty kills, which typically do not feature the team's offensive stars in offensive situations.
Isn't that exactly what fights do?
Now that the instigator is a thing, there's at least some chance chucking knuckles will put your team at a man disadvantage. Five suddenly becomes seven, or even ten minutes if the circumstances are right. It's hard to predict. Suddenly every fight is a roll of the dice. Tell me, do we really want someone from the first half of the lineup risking missing such a large time period. Unless of course it's a lower-line player, in which case who cares? Fists McGhee plays one minute that night instead of five. Wahoo?
Taylor: I feel like it's kind of a chicken and egg thing, though. Why do fights start? Because of the dunderheads doing stupid things. What deters the stupid things? Knowing you'll get a five-knuckle meat-soother to the face - and that it could happen when the fourth line isn't out on the ice. Granted, scoring on someone is the biggest deterrent of them all, but Boston still wants to play their "Boston" way and you've got to have guys that can stand up or the whole team will get shook around like a rag doll.
I think what we're going to see more of is the "dual threat" player. A guy like Antoine Roussel embodies this pretty well. He can score and walk the edge while making the other team lose their mind (and there really is nothing better than knowing that the entire Chicago Blackhawks fanbase hates Roussel, because that is what helps to generate rivalries among two teams). But he'll also drop the gloves, and he's learned over the last year when is the appropriate time to do that and when isn't -- much moreso than the year prior. Now if we can just get Curtis McKenzie to realize that he doesn't have to fight (and lose, sorry buddy) every shift but play a similar style as Roussel, he'll make a great bottom six contribution to the team.
3. But... What about "Momentum"?
Wes: I remember playing NHL 2001. Great game, especially with momentum turned on, once I figured out a fight would automatically restore the stamina of all of my lines. You better believe I fought. I also conned the computer into making tons of stupid trades. FYI Nic Lidstrom and Sergei Zubov were a good defensive pair. Silly, sure, but is the idea of momentum in the real world any less so? Does Tyler Seguin, sitting on the bench, really need to watch one of his teammates throw punches in order to fuel his desire to score?
Taylor: Video games? What is that? Must have been too busy tossing flags around during those years you speak of. I don't think that watching someone throw punches fuels desire to score. But, I do believe that if you watch a guy give 130% you can look at yourself and find that little bit more. That's the value I think the team gets from a well-timed fight. The fights that feel staged don't really do much for the team, in my opinion.
Wes: I mean, you're not wrong. Fighting is dumb, but it also might be important? It still happens, which I suppose is at least a tepid endorsement. I also think there's something to be said for "in the moment" acts of violence. Watching on TV it's sometimes easy to forget that hockey is sort of a cage fight on ice. Walls do weird things to a person's psyche, so does getting banged on by a pest for sixty minutes. I can concede that, while ill-advised, fights to some degree might be inevitable.
What I suppose I don't get, and I'll close out by asking you for (hopefully) a little clarity, is why do we celebrate the fighter more than the goal-scorer? Fights demonstrate 130% commitment, or so the theory goes, doesn't chucking your glove into the air for a celebratory duck-hunt after going through five pylons en-route to scoring a goal? Isn't that exciting? I don't remember a single time Darius Kasperaitis fought anybody, but I sure do remember his center-ice swim.
Taylor: I think the fighter has the "blue collar effort" aura that more people can relate to. Most people don't believe they could go out on the ice and actually pull off a Tyler-Seguin-bar-down-goal versus an NHL caliber goaltender. But, being a grinder who is just looking for a chance on the ice is something most of us can relate to on a human level. We're all suckers for pulling for underdogs, and the perception is that guys with more innate skill haven't had to work as much as one of those grinder-type players to get to the big show (which, let's be honest, is most likely an inaccurate perception most have). I also think the physical sacrifice to play this game is much more apparent when a guy is bleeding from a split above his eye after a fight than a bruise an elite scorer might get after being checked into the boards, and so people cheer the obvious sacrifice more because it's hard to not see it when it's right in front of you.
People go nuts for a Seguin, Benn, Spezza or Klingberg goal here in Dallas. But a guy like Roussel might get a little bit more from the crowd behind him because we can see the immediate sacrifice being made to play this game after his scraps. He's the "underdog" comparatively, and everyone loves an underdog to succeed.