“Super-Pests” taking place of true enforcers

NHLHS writers Anthony Curatolo and David Strehle take a look at the NHL’s vanishing true enforcer, and the new breed that is taking their place.

It seems that a recent trend is continuing, and a certain type of player is disappearing from the National Hockey League landscape.

The true enforcer, once a prominent component in the makeup of an NHL team, is all but becoming extinct in today’s new NHL.  A few still remain but for the most part, club’s general managers have said they will go with “team toughness”.

The history

There have always been fighters in the NHL, but during the 1970′s and 1980′s, NHL enforcers enjoyed what would become their hey day in the league.

In the ’70′s, some teams even employed four or more players that could act as their team’s respective police men.  If a player on a club messed with one of your team’s skill players, there would be a certain amount of hell to pay.  Bench-clearing brawls became commonplace, and the NHL became a battle ground.  This is when the not so affectionate term “goon” was the most frequently used to describe enforcers.

But the league enacted rules, fines and suspensions concerning whoever was determined to be the first man off the bench to join a fracas, and those types of occurrences became more and more of a rarity.

In the ’80′s and 90′s, most clubs employed one true heavyweight to police their team.  Pugilists named Bob Probert, Troy Crowder, Dave Brown, Joey Kocur, and Dave Semenko kept opponents honest.  When the teams with these players came to town, there was an air of excitement that came along with them.  Games that paired clubs with premier heavyweights on opposite sides became hot tickets.

Today

ANAHEIM, CA - FEBRUARY 11: Andre Roy #27 of the Calgary Flames and George Parros #16 of the Anaheim Ducks get into a fight in the first period of the game on February 11, 2009 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks is a good example of one of the leftover enforcers.  At 6′ 5″ and 232 pounds, Parros is a heavyweight.  And with 13 goals, 25 points, and 694 penalty minutes over the course of 289 career NHL games, Parros’ role with the Ducks will never be questioned.

Players that are still known as enforcers, with many similarities to Parros around the league are Eric Godard (316 Games Played, 6 Goals, 15 Points, 728 Penalty Minutes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Derek Boogard (255 games, 2 G, 15 P, 544 PIMs) of the New York Rangers, Jody Shelley (538 games, 16 G, 49 P, 1,347 PIMs) of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs (327 games, 8 G, 17 P, 788 PIMs).

The “new breed”

While the new NHL enforcer is more of an “ultimate weapon” in today’s era, they have to have some skill tied into their game – more so than simply being able to drop the gloves and dance.

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 28:  Sean Avery #16 of the New York Rangers has words with referee Stephen Walkon against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first period at Mellon Arena on November 28, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Sean Avery is a perfect example, and one that can be used as the definition of what the new NHL brings with their new “blood” of what was once known as an enforcer. Although his time with Dallas did not fair well, the fiesty forward has found a home, again, with the Rangers and fits in to their plans perfectly.

Avery has earned over 100 penalty minutes in any season he has appeared in more than 50 games and has not slipped below the 15 goal total during those seasons. Fantasy statistics aside, Sean Avery has helped create this new breed within the NHL.

He knows, perfectly, how to get under the skin and into the mind of his opponents while on the ice.  Time after time we have seen Avery yapping away at a player on the opposing team thus creating a stir. Although Sean may not drop the gloves as often as many fans would like to see, there truly isn’t a need for him to do so unless it is called for. Yes, his reputation may create a difficult situation and some questionable calls during a game, but Sean Avery does his job and he does it with perfection.

Dan Carcillo is another player who can be used to compare and contrast the difference between an enforcer and agitator.

Like Avery, Carcillo knows how to get under his opponents skin helping his team gain the man advantage causing his opponents to lose their cool and take a trip to the sin bin.

Aside from his tactics on the ice, he has been able to score some clutch goals with the Flyers as well.

Although Carcillo has never put up amazing offensive numbers, he does contribute on the score sheet and we all know how much his presence on the ice means to his club. With the acquisition of Jody Shelley this off-season, Carcillo will be called upon to play more hockey and less enforcer this year. At a bright young age of 25, expect his numbers with his new role to rise offensively.

Carcillo has also been flagged, while on the ice, for infractions that come due to reputation and has been the goat of the game, but do not let that stand in the way of his true value while on the ice. Coach Laviolette will help Carcillo’s game develop, even more so now that the organization has signed Jody Shelley this off-season to take on the role of “enforcer”

RALEIGH, NC - FEBRUARY 20:  Steve Downie #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning knocks Tim Conboy #38 of the Carolina Hurricanes down to the ice during the game on February 20, 2009 at RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Another player who has created a 180 degree turn in their game, much in part due to the way a coach helped influence him is Steve Downie, a one-time NHL outcast. With the assistance of head coach Rick Tocchet last year, Downie has been able to turn his game around finding a top six spot last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Known for his “attitude” and rugged style of play, Downie brings a complete game with him – hands to put the puck in the back of the net, and fearless in sticking up not only for himself but his teammates.

Arron Asham of the Pittsburgh Penguins played in 72 games with the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring 10 goals and 24 points, while recording 126 PIMs.  Asham’s style of play will go along well with that of teammate Matt Cooke, who ended up with 15 goals, 30 points, and 106 PIMs.  Cooke is one of the most hated agitators, both with fans of opposing teams and opposing players alike.  His antics last season drove superstar Ilya Kovalckuk, then of the Atlanta Thrashers, to retaliate, uncharacteristically attacking the Pittsburgh forward.

Steve Ott of the Dallas Stars is another example of the ever-evolving breed of agitators.  Last season, he notched 22 goals and 36 points to go along with his 146 PIMs.

The Vancouver Canucks’ Alex Burrows played in all 82 games last year, scoring 35 goals, 67 points, and racking up 121 PIMs.  All the while, he was under the opposition’s skin and a thorn in a certain official’s side.  Burrows is taking the agitator role to a new level, much the same way that Brendan Shanahan and Keith Tkachuk defined the role of “power forward” back in the early to mid-1990′s.

In today’s era of hockey, there continues to be a place in the game for fighting.  The old saying of “I went to a hockey game and a boxing match broke out” may have simmered somewhat, but more often than not, there will be a scrap or two during a hockey game. Especially when you consider the heated rivalries amongst many of the clubs around the league.

There may not be bench clearing brawls anymore, but you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be one hell of a scrap when two players prepare to drop the gloves during a game. It remains a major factor in separating hockey from many, if not most of the other sports out there.

The cuts, contusions, and fisticuffs help add to the action of what is already the greatest sport on Earth.

As professional hockey continues to change and moves more towards the skill end of the spectrum, players that will be able to contribute in all ways will find their way onto NHL rosters.  With the salary cap in full force and affect, teams can no longer afford to keep one-dimensional players on board.

Dave Strehle
NHLHS Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent
dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com
Twitter: @PhilaDAVEia

Anthony Curatolo
NHLHS New York Islanders Correspondent
acuratolo@nhlhotstove.com
Twitter: @HockeyGuy_AC