Are NHL enforcers becoming endangered?

The day has come when fewer than half the NHL's 30 teams will start a season without a heavyweight fighter, or one-dimensional forward. It seems the term "team toughness" is being redefined.

Fewer than 15 of league's 30 teams rostering heavyweight fighter

From left, enforcers Colton Orr, Paul Bissonnette and George Parros will not be on an NHL roster when the regular season begins Wednesday. Fewer than half the league's 30 teams now employ a heavyweight brawler. (Getty Images/Associated Press/CBCSports.ca)

Brian Burke addressed the Toronto Maple Leafs media in January 2012 and lamented the demotion of tough guy Colton Orr to the American Hockey League.

With a “character” player like Orr out of the National Hockey League, the then-general manager said he was “troubled” that the state of the game when someone like Orr was no longer on the roster.

“I have this fear that if we don’t have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over,” the now ex-Maple Leafs GM said at the time. “I see guys running around and starting stuff and won’t back it up. It makes me sick to my stomach.”

Well, the day has come when fewer than half the league’s 30 teams will start a season without a heavyweight fighter, or one-dimensional forward.

“There’s trends in hockey and the fisticuffs trend … we’re trending away from that style,” Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told reporters at his season-ending news conference last spring.

But Burke, who enters his second season as president of hockey operations with the Calgary Flames, will have to go down kicking and screaming to shed his club’s entire roster of an enforcer.

NHL fights trending downward

SEASON#of fights
2012-13 (48 gms)692

Courtesy hockeyfights.com

The Flames will open the 2014-15 campaign Wednesday against Vancouver with a trio of enforcers in Brian McGrattan along with newcomers Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland, despite the fact they ranked 23rd in the NHL last season in goals per game (2.46).

Fan reaction in the pre-season hit a new level on Monday when the Maple Leafs sent tough guys Frazer McLaren and Orr to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, sparking talk of the need for fighters in the NHL who offer little skill in limited playing time. Are we embarking on a cultural change or are teams re-defining the term team toughness?

“You just see teams really wanting a guy playing both ends of the ice,” Daniel Winnik, the Leafs’ new penalty-kill specialist, told The Canadian Press this week. “It’s not a knock against old-school fighters, it’s just the way management has gone.”

Flyers ditch heavyweights

In Philadelphia, GM and former Flyers goalie Ron Hextall has the team going in a direction it hasn’t in decades, with the Flyers set to open a season for the first time since the early 1970s without a heavyweight enforcer.

Philadelphia led the NHL in this year’s pre-season with 12 fights, according to hockeyfights.com but Zack Stortini, who had five of them, was put on waivers a week ago. Fellow forward Jay Rosehill, who had two points and 90 penalty minutes in 34 regular-season games for Philadelphia last season, has been waived and will start the season in the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms if he clears.

“We’ve got some guys that can handle themselves,” Hextall said recently, noting the likes of 2013-14 Flyers penalty minute leader Zac Rinaldo (153, pictured at left) and Wayne Simmonds (106). “There never are any fights in the playoffs. And then in-between, it’s getting less and less.”

There were 18 fights in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, with the Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks leading the way with four each. Interestingly, neither team had a player reach 100 penalty minutes during the regular campaign.

In the 2013 post-season, there were 30 NHL fights and 37 the previous year.

There has also been a steady decline in fighting during the regular season. Ten seasons ago, there were 1,562 fights, nearly 150 more than five seasons ago in the 2009-10 campaign (1,423). Last year, the number of fights dipped under 1,000 (933) across the NHL.

What this has meant is a player like Paul Bissonnette, a former Phoenix Coyotes tough guy with more than 200 games of NHL service, is looking for work after the St. Louis Blues released him from his tryout contract on Oct. 4. Bissonnette attempted to expand his profile last season and only engaged in three fights, collecting eight points in 39 games while averaging four minutes 44 seconds of ice time.

Below, we list five other NHL enforcers from last season and where they are now.

Shane O'Brien45 games, 3 assists, 58 PIMSigned with Florida, Oct. 6
Kevin Westgarth48 gms, 4 goals, 7 pts, 68 PIMReleased by Edmonton, Oct. 5
Krys Barch55 gms, 4 assists, 99 PIMReleased by Arizona, Oct. 4
Matt Kassian33 gms, 2 pts, 63 PIMReleased by Arizona, Oct. 4
George Parros22 gms, 1 assist, 85 PIMUnrestricted free agent