Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fightin' words

Over at OilersNation, Robin Brownlee asks a few questions about the Oilers’ quest for an enforcer.
  • Is willing but much-maligned Zack Stortini enough of a deterrent to prevent ruffians from taking liberties with Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson if he can get some back-up from newly acquired Jason Strudwick or veterans Steve Staios and Ethan Moreau?
  • Would a tag-team of Stortini, who dropped the gloves 23 times last season, and J.F. Jacques do the trick if Jacques can overcome wrist and back injuries and finally deliver the physical and fistic contributions expected of him?
  • Is there an NHL-calibre enforcer in the bent-nosed bunch of minor-leaguers the Oilers have invited to camp who’d be ready and willing to throw down for 500-large on 30 or 40 nights this season?
Fortunately, I have the answers to all of the above. Actually it’s really a single, all-purpose answer:

Who gives a shit?

To my mind, there’s no better example to be found of the parting of ways between conventional wisdom and reality that exists in sports than the value placed on enforcers in the NHL. Having a tough guy to protect teammates and settle scores is regarded as essential by everyone from armchair GMs up to, well, actual GMs (as evidenced by the Oilers’ pursuit of fan favourite and league heavyweight champ Georges Laraque). The idea, sayeth the gospel, is that tough guys not only punish evildoers for their transgressions, but also act to deter the cheap shot artists of the league from taking liberties with star players. If the Oilers had a tough guy, the reasoning goes, Ales Hemsky would never again have to worry about Robyn Regher using Hemsky’s face to apply Turtle Wax to the dasher boards at the end of the rink.

Advocates of the nuclear deterrent theory point to the fact that, since Laraque’s departure, the Oilers have been racked by injuries to key players (Moreau, Souray, Horcoff and Hemsky all missed time last year and, at one point late in the season, the entire 2007 team was in ICU at the U of A hospital). Problem is, correlation is not causation. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see how the assertion that tough guys prevent injuries is actually baseless.

Below is a (small, shitty)table that compares the official man games lost to injury (MGL) totals (via James Mirtle) with’s rankings of total fighting majors by team (FM). For ease of comparison, I’ve clustered the top, middle and bottom thirds of the man games lost together to see how they correlated with fighting majors.

Squint and you can see that four teams in the top 10 in FM were in the bottom of the pile in MGL. But four other leading FM teams were among the league leaders in MGL, with the pugilistic Canucks just missing the cut in that regard. Overall, in this sample, there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between how often a team fights and the number of severe injuries they incur.

Granted, this is a simplistic analysis using a rather small sample size and missing out on a helluva lot of variables. But let’s appeal to common sense here: of the myriad major Oilers’ injuries over the past couple of years, how could reasonably have been prevented or deterred by an enforcer? I can think of two: Moreau fucking up his shoulder trying to slap Danny Markov in ‘06 and Souray blowing out his pitching arm in a tilt against the Canucks' Byron Ritchie last year. Theoretically, an enforcer would have prevented these two injuries by taking the burden of scrapping off Moreau and Souray’s shoulders (get it? get it?). But with 33 and 29 career NHL fights respectively, neither Souray nor Moreau are, for lack of a better term, pussies. Both are gritty players who are regarded as leaders on the ice: probably not the kind of guys who will outsource their dirty work on the off chance of a freak (or, in Souray’s case, entirely predictable) injury. Which brings me to another point: outside of the extremely rare one-sided beating or any fight in which Todd Fedoruk is a combatant, most hockey fights end with no harm done to either pugilist. Given the relatively low level of risk involved, it’s hard to see how fighting is any kind of deterrent, particularly for those players whose job description includes regular blows to the head followed five minute stays in the box.

This is nicely illustrated by the photo above. That’s Derek Boogaard about to drop some sweet science on Le GG himself. The same Derek Boogaard who, since rampaging through the Oilers roster a couple of seasons back, has had Oiler fans waking up in a cold sweat whenever a game with Minnesota draws nigh. The Boogeyman is 6’7” and 271 lbs. His career fight card reads like a who’s who of NHL enforcers, with Laraque, Shelley, Godard, Parros and Brashear all making appearances. Clearly, having an enforcer of your own is not going to deter a guy like that because fighting the other team’s enforcer is Boogaard’s entire raison d’etre. It’d take an I.E.D. to stop that motherfucker. That said, Boogaard’s status as both heavyweight and wrecking ball make him an aberration. What about cheap shot artists like the aforementioned Robyn Regehr: surely he would pass up the chance to cripple Sam Ganger if he knew the Oilers had a true tough guy giving the stinkeye from the end of the bench, right?

Well, no. Just as heavyweights tend to fight other heavyweights, punks like Regehr tend not to fight at all (RR had three fights last year against titans like Jason chimera and Dustin Penner). They hit and run. If they do fight, it’s with players in their weightclass. If outmatched, they hang on, or turtle: no harm done. And certainly no compelling reason to pass up the chance to murder another team’s star player.

To sum up so far:

  • The correlation between an enforcer and team injuries is weak at best, non-existent at worst
  • Guys who are paid, in whole or in part, to fight aren’t going to change their style of play because of the possibility of getting into a fight.
  • Guys who are paid to take liberties with others won’t fight an enforcer, thus enforcers carry no value as a deterrent.

So what’s left? Why are guys like Ales Hemsky and Kevin Prendergast, fellas whose knowledge of the game (hopefully) greatly eclipses my own, still grumbling about the need for an enforcer? The only answer that makes any sense is that the importance of an tough guy has become part of the culture of the game, a treasured myth that, while completely lacking in any supporting evidence, is nonetheless repeated, circulated and passed on through the generations as cant (see also: Europeans are pansies, “big goals”). These are things we believe to be true, though all the evidence before our eyes tells us otherwise: enforcers are important. Tough guys prevent injuries. They help teams win.

As “just-so” stories go, that’s all well and good. But when a team like the Oilers with literally more NHL-ready prospects than they know what to do withstarts talking about giving up a roster spot and cap space to some meathead whose job is to act as the human equivalent to those obnoxious Jumbotron exhortations (“Make some NOOOOOOISE!!!), well, it perturbs me.

I’ll close this off with a relevant quote from Mirtle, who did his own analysis of NHL enforcers last year:
At best, they're not a liability. At worst, they cripple their team, allowing somewhere in the neighbourhood of two goals per 60 minutes more than the rest of their team while generating almost zero offence or shots on goal.

If I'm a coach or GM, isn't there a better option at the bottom of the roster?


B.C.B. said...

Maybe an enforcer is not needed. But Gretzky had a point when he wanted to be trade with MacSorely: You do need a guy that is willing to give a two hander to the head if he touches the best player on your team.

Or maybe Regier couldn't hide from the enforcer if Bettman hadn't made a mistake when he put in place the instigator rule: taking liberties with the other teams star would be punishable.

Or maybe we just need a star (like Pronger, please don't boo me) to rough up anyone whom looks at Hemsky the wrong way: because we all know stars don't get suspend.

Just some thoughts.
Please lowe/tambellini get someone whom can't make the show unless they are will to do WHATEVER it takes to protect Hemsky and Gags (even if he is a fringe NHLEr or AHLer).

Scott said...

I have to agree.
We need to stop pining for an enforcer and start looking for a real a**hole.
Somebody who, if Hemsky takes a questionable shot from Regher, will throw an elbow or borderline head-shot at Cammalleri, Langkow or Iginla.

We need a Tootoo or a Neil...
I doubt it would prevent any injuries to our team, but it would give me the satisfaction of vigilante justice.

LittleFury said...

I keep hearing that the Oilers need a real nutjob, but how many players out there fit the bill? And do we really want an Aaron Downie type on the Oilers? I don't. The Oilers' failure to properly implement a team toughness strategy doesn't mean it's a bad strategy.

Finally, if you ask me, the number on person responsible for protecting Ales Hemsky is Ales Hemsky. I dig that he doesn't shy away from the rough stuff, but c'mon: you race RR to the puck enough times, you know he's gonna try and do you dirty. How about hang back a half step and paste him for a change?

Quain said...

We need that guy to drink his milk.

Doogie2K said...

Technically, the instigator was a Ziegler thing.

But given the existence of the above, the enforcer goes from a genuine lifeline to more of a psychological weapon, especially since, as noted, fights rarely result in real damage these days. (They should have a rule that you can't grab on, like they used to. No more pussy grappling; fight like a real man.)

Also, given the existence of the above, retaliation seems to be the only real weapon the Oilers have at their disposal. And if the Oilers get penalized heavily for doing the same shit the Flames or Wild do, well, MacT can use the media to highlight the hypocrisy. Worked for Badger Bob back in the day with Neil Sheehy; that's part of the reason we have in instigator rule in the first place, just to bring it full circle.

PunjabiOil said...

I firmly believe the ''need for enforcer'' mantra has been created by hockey fans on the internet.

I also believe it was mostly Katz pressing the 'Laraque to Edmonton' movement.

Schitzo said...

I have to wonder how much of Raffi's disappearing act was due to fear of retaliation for the style of game he plays. I doubt the feared retaliation would actually have happened, but Torres strikes me as exactly the type of guy who would let that gnaw at him.

And I think the Oilers just need to be willing to earn the 5 minute majors this year - I look at Moreau two-handing Phaneuf and Greene feeding Kesler the lumber. We might take a ton of penalties the first 10 games of the season, but if it makes those shitheads back off, it's well worth it.

Schitzo said...

One further thought - the "don't be afraid of a suspension" mindset should be especially drilled into guys like Jacques, Pouliot, and Stortini. We have such an abundance of 4th liners, there's
a) no problems filling a lineup hole due to suspension
b) a real risk of losing your spot on the roster if you're a goddamn pussy

LittleFury said...

And I think the Oilers just need to be willing to earn the 5 minute majors this year - I look at Moreau two-handing Phaneuf and Greene feeding Kesler the lumber. We might take a ton of penalties the first 10 games of the season, but if it makes those shitheads back off, it's well worth it.

The question is: will it? I don't know why it would. Short of ending a guy's career, I can't imagine what it would actually take to force a change of behaviour. Brian Marchment played for almost 20 years and was a sonofabitch for all of 'em. Ditto Ulf Samuelsson. The list goes on. All of these guys probably got the shit kicked out of them at one point or another, yet they never changed their game.

I'm not sure any of the solutions proposed, whether it's getting someone to pound the offender or applying the same tender mercies to the other team's skill guys, will actually do anything but provide an outlet.

Ned Braden said...

Nice work, Detroit does fine without a 250 pound pine-rider...

and Brownlee leads the mouth breathers and their fixation on getting Dave Brown out of retirement to 'handle' Regehr

namflashback said...


Critical to DET is that they will eat you alive in any man-advantage situation, so them turning the other cheek works well.