With the shenanigans that occurred in Sunday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – Buffalo Sabres preseason game, the role of the enforcer again emerged as a hot topic on Twitter among hockey fans. The line brawl caused by the boneheaded actions of both John Scott and Phil Kessel, and the equally brain dead response by David Clarkson is a case-study of what happens when a hockey game (a meaningless one at that) becomes about sending a message rather than, you know, winning a hockey game. You can watch what happened below, but essentially it was a 6’8
hockey player face puncher extraordinaire deciding to try to start a fight with one of the premier skilled players in the game, breaking “The Code”. In response (and quite frankly probably in self-defence), Kessel‘s reaction was to start giving several two-handers to Scott‘s ankles. This would eventually spark a full-on line brawl, causing David Clarkson to leave the bench to join the altercation – which we all know is an automatic 10 game suspension. In my opinion, Scott’s actions were idiotic but Kessel‘s reaction is an extremely dangerous play with absolutely no place in hockey. I will reserve my judgement about the continued idiocy of the Wheel of Justice for another time.
It got me thinking about the new Atlantic division and the talk of “toughness”. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the “enforcer” as it is currently defined – in my eyes, someone who holds down a 4th line roster spot whose primary skill is punching another 4th line player when teams need a spark, a violation of “The Code” occurs or sometimes at other inopportune times. By all accounts, Boston is the toughest of the tough in the Atlantic – they have probably the best power forward in the game who can score on you and beat you up in Milan Lucic, an enforcer who can actually play hockey in Shawn Thornton and Zdeno Chara as an imposing player on D. The other teams in the division, and conference, have responded in-kind to the intimidation tactics: the Leafs took on that tough-guy image with the addition of Clarkson this offseason, along with notable face punchers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Ottawa added Matt Kassian and has Chris Neil on the roster.
Since Bergevin took over the General Managing duties, the Canadiens have also responded in kind with two notable additions: a 3rd line grit player and solid fighter in Brandon Prust who was signed as a UFA last year and a trade for mustachioed enforcer George Parros this offseason. While I can go on and on about Prust‘s value as a physical presence, defender of the rookies and ability to sustain a physical presence, I am not a big fan of what Parros can bring to the table. Parros is the embodiment of the 4th line enforcer – he doesn’t really have any offensive or defensive skills to speak of, and his one talent is punching other enforcers. While +/- isn’t the best stat to evaluate play, the fact that he was -15 in 39 games while only playing minimal minutes is indicative of how little he brings to the ice. He played about 6 mins/game last season as well.
I’m sure every single Habs fan remembers the calamity that was the Laraque-era in Montreal and his lack of willingness to drop the gloves. He abided by this mystical “Code” that’s invoked to explain why aggravated assault is allowed in professional sports. He also had some pretty interesting, if unsurprising, thoughts on why Parros wouldn’t intimidate anyone in the division. I tend to agree with Big Georges on this one – but not for the same reasons. The Canadiens (and maybe the NHL as a whole) would be better served if toughness wasn’t defined as someone who plays 6 minutes on the 4th line who’ll fight other equally untalented players. I watch hockey for the talent, and physicality/toughness is definitely part and parcel of that. I will take a Lucic-type player or a Ryane Clowe, or an Alexei Emelin any day of the week. You want a player who can play a huge role in the game by taking the body consistently, making opposing forwards/defensemen think about the possibility of receiving a huge hit and being a punishing and imposing presence on the other team. I don’t mind fighting in and of itself; the Iginla-Lecavalier fight from the playoffs a few years back is one of the greatest fights in recent history. That fight was designed to spark their teams, involved real emotion; not a fight off the opening face-off between two players who probably won’t see the ice for another 20 minutes or as an over-the-top response to a clean hit. If you want real toughness, it should permeate through the lineup with players who can play tough and play well at the same time – not with a 6 minute presence from the 4th line.