The Persistence of Enforcers

During the Calgary Flames loss to the New York Islanders last night, only one line amongst the four units was consistently driving the play north: David Moss, Tim Jackman and Tom Kostopolous. Nominally Calgary’s “fourth line”, the Moss trio accounted for both Calgary goals and finished the night a cumulative +38 in terms of corsi and +16 in terms of scoring chances.

The particular combination has been effective since it was cobbled together several weeks ago. Despite averaging about 10 minutes of ice per night, Moss et al. have combined for seven goals, 13 points and a cumulative +13 rating in their last five games.

The relevance to this discussion isn’t the Flames suddenly potent fourth unit however. It’s the fact that it was never meant to exist in the first place. In the off-season, Darryl Sutter signed veteran enforcer Raitis Ivanans to a two year, $650,ooo/year contract. It goes without saying that Ivanans does only one thing well: chuck knuckles. The 6’4″, 240 pound fighter has been an on-ice detriment for years, frequently falling at the bottom of the charts in terms of possession, scoring rates and penalty differential.

Despite his obvious drawbacks, Sutter signed the big Latvian to a multi-year deal in order to patrol the ice from the Flames fourth line. The only reason he wasn’t in the line-up last night, defusing Calgary’s most effective trio, was his unfortunate opening bout versus fellow goon Steve MacIntyre that resulted in a concussion from which he has yet to recover. Not to be glib about Ivanans injury – which is serious and from which we all wish a speedy recovery on human terms – but Calgary essentially lucked into their currently effective fourth line. Jackman and Moss are good enough to outplay other fourth lines with a guy like Tom Kostopolous on their wing, but there’s little chance they’d be able to carry around a sub-replacement level talent like Ivanans without detrimental effect. So why was he signed at all?

The question is one of the enduring mysteries in the NHL. Sutter wasn’t the only GM to place a value on the pugilist recently. Derek Boogaard, Jody Shelley and Colton Orr were inked to pricey, multi-year deals by their respective clubs, for example. The enforcer is an anachronism that simply refuses to be extinguished. Why?

This is an issue I’ve attacked frequently in the past. In 2008, I argued that NHL GM’s should ditch the enforcer:

Yes, the enforcer is a dying breed. And in my humble opinion, it’s a breed that isn’t dying fast enough. GM’s still cling to the conventional wisdom that “every club needs its heavyweight” like jammy-fingered children to a security basket. Just glancing over the various rosters now, I count about 26 pure pugilists. I’m not talking about guys that fight, or even fight a lot. Again, I mean the guys who do almost nothing but fight. The policemen, the nuclear the deterrents, the not-so-gentle giants. The guys whos penalty minutes match or exceed their total ice-time by the end of the year. There’s still a bunch of them in the league. And I can’t conceive of one good reason why that is.

The modern goon is so utterly impotent in the face of “new” NHL obstacles that his ability to right perceived wrongs and deter pests is next to nil. Here’s a brief guide on how to neutralize an enforcer:

a.) Just say “no”. With the strict instigator rules that include penalties, suspensions and fines, not to mention the existing codes of etiquette and conduct regarding beating on an unwilling partner, the ability of a goon “to do his job” is directly moderated by the oppositions willingness to engage him in fisticuffs. An obvious example that springs to mind is Eric Godard: from Dec.13 to Feb.2*, a 19 game sample, Godard didn’t get a single penalty minute, let alone a fighting major. Godard explained in an interviewed during the dry spell that he was “frustrated” because he simply couldn’t find anyone to fight him. He’d skate around for five minutes a night, looking for trouble, finding none. He was rendered completely toothless.

(*Notably, Godard’s dry-spell ended in Edmonton on Feb.04. His 27 PIM came thanks to a crease scrum in which Godard clumsily attacked anyone and everyone around him (the Flames were being embarrassed at the time). Godard ended up getting thrown out of the contest and the Oilers ended up scoring on the ensuing powerplay(s). Take THAT Oiler scum!)

b.) Have an effective 4th line. Goons only play about 5 minutes a night because they tend to be gross liabilities. They get scored on easily and can’t score themselves. They also take a lot of penalties. As such, goons only tend to see the ice when the outcome of the game is no longer in question (blow-outs, in either direction) or against similarly bad players. Therefore, a relatively decent bottom end of the roster would probably convince the opposing coach to bench his big man pretty quickly**.

**(That is, at least, until his team was being blown-out. Then the goon could be sent out to fight and be subsequently penalized, suspended and potentially fined…thereby further feeding the blow-out).

c.) Dont have a goon on the roster. An extension of the point above, but also plays into the “goons only fight each other” thing. How often do you hear “we have to play X heavyweight because they have Y heavyweight?”

Just say “no”, have a half-way decent bottom 6 and don’t bother dressing a goon. Voila: you have now effectively castrated the other guy’s enforcer. Feel free to “run their stars”, if it fits your fancy (because that’s what everyone does when there’s no goon, right!?), because there ain’t a damn thing he can do about it.

Others have written on the subject more recently and come to similar conclusions as summarized by Bettman’s Nightmare at Behind the Net:

As you can see, the goon is not held in high regard…and for good reasons: they are limited in their abilities, and their deployment can hurt the other lines.

That being said, there’s a few discussion points that we need to think about: if the NHL’s deployment of goons isn’t reflective of the LOES’s assertion that they are not particularly valuable (and possibly harmful), what are the existing rationale for their use?  How might this rationale be effectively and critically analyzed?

The latter question is one I’ve attempted to answer in the past as well. When the Flames signed Brian McGrattan in 2009, I suggested their existence was perpetuated by a potential “placebo effect”:

Enforcers are the great placebo of the NHL. They persist because everyone thinks they do something positive (intimidate other teams, “protect” star players) even though there isn’t a shred of evidence that they actually accomplish anything.

The goon in the modern NHL is a castrated beast. He bleeds goals against and his every move on the ice is tracked by nervous eyes and quick whistles. Fines and suspensions are the primary fruit of his labor. He is rendered impotent by two simple letters: “no”. Pests laugh in the goons face. All that’s left is the occasional, ritualistic dance with another anachronistic brute before the hoots and hollers of the crowd. It’s exciting, it’s gladiatorial, but…I doubt it helps win hockey games.

The enforcer is a long standing figure in the NHL landscape. His job is also a difficult one, requiring courage and stoicism. Fighters are symbolic archetypes of the sport’s aggression and violence. They can act to enliven a crowd or focus it’s need for retribution on an opponent. Finally, they’re perceived as an arbiter of justice on the ice: a guarantor of either deterrence of vengeance should the bad guys step out of line.

In short, there is convention, ritual and theories of justice underpinning the role of the enforcer. Despite their various faults, goons are easy guys to like and their existence is therefore easy to rationalize. Even if they don’t really help a team win.