What happened in Pittsburgh last Saturday has left yet another black mark on the great game of hockey. Both Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik and James Neal’s knee to Brad Marchand’s head were dirty plays which crossed the clear lines of respect all hockey players are supposed to follow, the “unwritten code” we all so often speaks of. (In case you haven’t seen it, click HERE for a video including both incidents)
It is very easy for the anti-fighting fans of hockey to twist Saturday night’s Thornton-Oprik incident into another example of fighting not having a place in the NHL. The problem is that the incident was not a fight: it was an assault. It is unrealistic to imply that this would not have happened if fighting was banned in the NHL. You can ban fights, but you can’t ban the thirst for revenge . Thornton was on a mission to avenge the concussed Loui Eriksson after he was hit by Orpik in the opening minute of the game. One could counter-argue that if Orpik had fought Thornton when he first challenged him, the incident could have just as easily been avoided. But the reality is that Orpik had no obligation to fight, and that’s where it should have ended. Thornton’s actions of slew-footing and punching a defenseless Orpik were unnecessary and uncalled for, and it’s very likely that the NHL department of player safety throws the book at him. He crossed a moral line, and there is no room for that in hockey. However, this should not be come a hill for anti-fighting groups to plant their flag. This was more about a player crossing the line than fighting.
What is being lost in all of this, most likely due to the images of Orpik being stretched off the ice, is the incredibly vicious knee to Marchand’s head, only second’s before Thornton’s attack. Neal, who has been under fire for dirty hits a few times in recent memory (such as these two incidents in the same game), had more than enough time to get out of the way and avoid hitting Marchand. No such attempt was made, and it’s clear in the replay that he angled his leg ever so slightly towards Marchand. The more I look at the video, the harder it is for me to come up with any defense for his heinous acts. A 5-game suspension for such an act I feel is getting off easy. For Neal to have such a lack of respect for a fellow player is far more disturbing than and fight I’ve seen this year.
We hope that what happened in that game will never happen again, but this won’t be aided simply by banning fighting in the NHL. Both of these incidents relate more to a lack of respect between players, something that rules simply can’t change. In a season that has been plagued by blatant head shots and other incidents which involved an intent to injure, it is the culture of the NHL players that needs to change, not the rule book. Respect for one another is the key to improving the poisoned and tainted culture of the NHL.
Here’s a link to an article I wrote for my University’s paper, The Concordian. Feel free to comment!
Being in my mid-20s, I never had the chance to see the great hockey players of the 70s and 80s in person. However, I have seen quite a few movies and clips from the internet, the NHL network, and ESPN classic to get a relative idea of the style of hockey played in the past. The good, old-fashioned hockey style featured enforcers shadowing the talented players, making sure the other team’s goons did not injure them. From watching hockey these days, I have noticed that this tactic is rarely used. The primary strategy is for the top players are on the first line together, and the enforcers tend used more as energy players on the fourth line. This made me wonder if the enforcers are scoring fewer points than the enforcers in the past, for one reason or another. To find the answer, I decided to do some research.
I looked up the ten players who had the highest Penalty in Minutes (PIM) in each year, from the 1970-1971 season to the 2011-2012 season (courtesy of hockeydb.com). I then checked the points for each player in that season, and then calculated the ratio of PIM to Points. I then calculated the average of each decade.
We see from the 1970s right up to the 2000s that there was a steady rise in the PIM to points ratio. This means that for every point an enforcer scored, he spent more and more time in the box. Enforcers were scoring twice as many points in the 70s and 80s than in the last 20 years. However, the amount of PIM has only dropped in the last 10 years.
To put it in perspective, enforcers in the 1970s would be in an average of two fights for every point. In the 1990s, they would be in five fights for every point. In the 2000s, it would drop to just over four fights for every point. Zenon Konopka had the highest PIM/pts ratio last year with 38.60. That’s almost 8 fights for every one point (keep in mind that not all these penalty minutes are from fights; it is simply an analogy to compare the amount of penalties taken compared to the offensive production of these players).
The results show that there has been a transition in the type of enforcers used in the NHL. The statistics show that players are scoring fewer points than in the past. We are seeing that enforcers are becoming less productive offensively, and are being used more as energy players. Over the years, the offensive production of enforcers has dropped significantly, while the amount of penalty minutes has only dropped slightly, and only in the last 12 years.
What kind of picture does this paint, concerning the current NHL? The statistics suggest that tough guys are scoring fewer and fewer goals, while at the same time taking fewer penalties. The last decade had the lowest average penalty minutes in the last 40 years. Even though they are taking fewer penalties, they are also producing less offensively for their team. There are of course exceptions, such as Chris Neil and David Clarkson. These two are energy players who still manage to produce offense for their team. There is the complete other side of the scale. There are players like Cam Janssen, who in the 2009-2010 season had 190 penalty minutes and not a single point. Players such as Trevor Gillies, Georges Laraque, and Paul Bissonnette are not big offensive contributors. They are still important to their team by being energy players, used to swing momentum in their team’s favour, back up their teammates, and send a message to the opposition.
We may be seeing the start of a greater use of agitators; players not necessarily there to just fight, or to shadow star players as in the past. These “hybrid-enforcers” have their own role, which is to bring energy, grit, and when the time comes, to fight for their team. Coaches love players that can produce offensively while simultaneously protect their teammates and bring energy. I am suggesting that in the next few years, we will see a rise in points from high penalty minute players. We will start seeing more and more players who can fight and score at the same time, bringing points up and keeping PIM around the same number. In my opinion, tough guys who cannot keep up with the speed of the game will be replaced with more talented players who can still fight, players like Chris Neil, David Clarkson, Milan Lucic and Steve Downie (prime examples of “functioning” agitators). The problem is, that these players are extremely rare. Players who can score and fight are very hard to come by, and most teams would love to get their hands on one. Will teams start drafting bigger, more talented players instead of pure tough guys? The next decade of hockey will be very interesting to watch.
On Thursday, I will be sharing with you my discussion on these statistics with one of the best tough guys of his time, Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan. I had a phone interview with Chris this week, and he shared some invaluable input as to what has changed in the last 40 years. Drop by next Thursday for his take on the issue.