Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Exodus of the Enforcer

jody shelley fight
"You're fucking irrelevant out here."

When historians look back on the slow, plodding demise of the hockey goon, they will reference those words as the opening salvo.

According to Mike Rupp, captured on HBO cameras in the fantastic 24/7, Jody Shelley was irrelevant.

"If you had any outcome on the game I'd fuckin' go with you, but you don't!"

But he wasn't just irrelevant in that particular game. He was irrelevant within the entire game of hockey.

And with a single sentence, Rupp removed any remaining shred of legitimacy clinging to Shelley's career, and the careers of all other players who make their living solely using their fists, perhaps even his own.

The remark became particularly salient after Brian Burke demoted Colton Orr to the AHL. Burke, and his oft-quoted love of truculence, no longer felt the need for the Leafs to carry Orr, one of the game's premier fighters. Orr was spending most of the season in the pressbox anyways, playing in a mere five games this season, and his role on the team was simply obsolete.

If Brian Burke can't find a spot on his roster for a player like Colton Orr, you have to believe that the day is coming soon that no team in the league will have a spot on their roster for a player like Orr.

But while Burke's actions show he recognizes the game has changed, the old school mentality is still pervasive in certain corners.

In an impassioned rant on Saturday night's Hockey Night in Canada telecast, Don Cherry warned Burke that he will regret letting go of Orr because players like Orr are integral to a team's success. Not every game will be against Detroit, Cherry said, the Leafs will have to travel to Boston as well.

Cherry cited the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990s, a team that found tremendous success with players like Bob Probert and Darren McCarty, as a reason for keeping a player like Orr.

"You're not going to win a Stanley Cup if you don't have somebody straightening guys out," said Cherry. "Every team that's won it, had it."

It's true that Detroit found success with these two players, but referencing Detroit as a reason for the goon's importance is misleading.

In reality, both Probert and McCarty were more than the one dimensional fighter that Colton Orr is. McCarty scored over 10 goals six times as a Red Wing, and ended up with 119 goals in 643 games, which ends up being about 15 goals a season. Probert only failed to hit 10 goals in one season in which he played more than 60 games, and he scored over 15 goals three times with the Wings and even had a season in which he scored 29 goals.

These weren't simply goons. They could take a regular shift and they could make a meaningful contribution to the team.

There will always be a place in the game for a player who can fill the net as well as fill in an opponent.

Harrison Mooney, writing for Puck Daddy, showed that in today's NHL, a player like Probert and McCarty, one who can both fight and score, is almost as rare as a 40-goal scorer. Last season, only seven players managed to accumulate at least 10 fights and 10 goals. In comparison, only five players scored at least 40 goals.

Previously, teams that wanted to infuse toughness in their lineup would simply call up a bruiser from the AHL, regardless of how well they could do anything else at an NHL level. The player would play a customary three or four minutes a game, spend more time in the penalty box, and the sideshow would move onto the next city for the next game. But since the lockout, the game is faster than it has ever been, slowly eliminating these players from lineups around the league.

In the past, the clutching and grabbing that dominated the game meant that the goon wasn't that big of a liability on the ice. They could almost hide amongst the slog that slowed everyone down. But now, without anything stopping the quick back-and-forth action on every line, the goon might as well be a stationary figure. As players pass them by it is painfully evident that so has the game.

It's not even the case that the goon can provide a physical presence on the ice. Previously, a pure fighter could hit as well as he could fight. But today, it's rare for the prototypical fighter to skate well enough to catch anyone to exact any physical punishment.

But regardless of the goon's imminent extinction, Don Cherry's basic point remains true: teams do still require an element of toughness to win. The Boston Bruins are the perfect example of that. But the fact is that this toughness needs to come with some skill, at least enough to keep up with the game. The Bruins primary fighter, Shawn Thornton, scored 10 goals for the Bruins last season, showing he's not simply a sideshow.

More importantly, the Bruins aren't the league's toughest team on the strength of one player. The Bruins boast a lineup that is deep with tough players, not all of whom play on the fourth line. Core players like Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand, and Zdeno Chara have all dropped the gloves multiple times this season.

Icing a line-up with a bunch of Colton Orrs is not going to help you beat the Bruins. Their players are too talented and if you risk playing a one-dimensional player for more than a few minutes, you're going to be exploited.

Jody Shelley and players just like him may still be playing in the NHL, and they might still be playing next season as well, but the slow exodus of the goon has begun. The game has left them, they are no longer relevant.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...