The near extinction of the one-dimensional NHL fighting specialist hasn’t been caused by a dwindling supply.
Known as enforcers, tough guys, policemen, goons, the one-dimensional fighting specialist has accrued more titles than the landed gentry. This player type fills a role that has been romanticized for decades, but the roars of the bloodthirsty haven’t served to protect NHL enforcers from their cruelest opponent yet: evolution.
“What’s happened this year is that the player that was just a three to seven or eight minutes a night player who would go out and fight and stuff, for all intents and purposes, that’s been weeded out of the league,” explained Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning on Saturday night.
If you’re feeling nostalgic and want to watch a staged fight – a particular sort of hockey fight that occurs when two one-dimensional fighting specialists square off immediately after a faceoff – you still can. You just have to buy a ticket to an AHL game.
In the contemporary NHL – where teams are restricted to 23-man rosters, prefer to roll four-lines, and prioritize depth scoring – teams are deciding that they can’t afford to use a roster spot on a player whose job isn’t primarily to contribute to the act of outscoring their opponents.
A lack of supply didn’t bring the NHL enforcer to the brink of extinction, cratering demand did.
The change – incremental at first – has been abrupt this season, and has had a massive influence on the NHL game. This season there were only seven NHL players who dropped the gloves on ten occasions or more, according to data found at hockeyfights.com. A year ago there were 22. Five years ago there were more than 40:
(Note: the above graph excludes the lockout shortened 2013 season in which seven players hit 10 fights or more in 48 games. 38 players fought six times or more, which would rate to 10 fights over 82 games).
“I think the last couple of years those guys are starting to kind of get pushed out,” said recently extended Canucks winger Derek Dorsett on Saturday, his face caked with blood (his own) following the club’s recent 6-5 overtime victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
Asked how he racked up so many fights this season – Dorsett was second among all NHL players with 17 bouts – with so few guys to square off with, the Canucks fourth-liner suggested that it was largely by fighting players of every stripe.
“I fight a variety of different guys,” Dorsett said. “I don't necessarily fight just fighters, sometimes it's just an intense battle and a fight happens. I don't come looking for them. I don't come to the rink thinking ‘I gotta fight this guy.’ They just sort of come and happen. I like playing that way, I like sticking up for my teammates.”
The Canucks like it too, which is partly why they rewarded Dorsett with a four-year, $10.6 million contract extension this week.
“What's happened is that to play that type of role, you have to be able to play too, or have a niche,” Benning told Sportsnet on Saturday. “Whether it's a guy on the fourth-line who gets in on the forecheck - an energy guy - or a guy who can kill penalties, those types of players now that are valuable are guys that can do those things.
“And there aren't a lot of those types of guys.”
The contributing pugilist is a rare commodity indeed. Among the seven players who racked up 10 or more fights only one (Dallas Stars forward Antoine Roussel) scored more than 10 goals. Only two pitched in 25 points or more (Roussel and Dorsett).
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There were more 40-goal scorers in hockey this season than there were players who managed 25 points and 10 fights.
“Those players now have become unique players,” Benning explained. “When we were trying to figure out a comparable for Derek there's not very many guys that can do the things that he does plus help the team play and win.
“The closest comparable that we could come up with was (Brandon) Prust in Montreal and his he's at $2.5 million and that was signed two years ago.”
Obviously the Canucks still value fighting and toughness, even if they’re unwilling to use a roster spot on a player like Tom Sestito, who led the entire NHL in fighting majors last season. They’re not the only ones, to hear Benning tell it.
“A month ago when I went to the general manager’s meetings I had five general managers come up to me and ask me ‘are you going to get Derek Dorsett signed?’” Benning said Saturday. “There are other teams that were interested. There were three other (general managers) who called me yesterday and told me what a good deal we got - numbers wise - on the Dorsett deal.
“Market value for a player like this, a guy who does all the things he can do, once he's a UFA, he's probably in the $2.75 to $3 million mark.”
It’s an interesting dynamic for a player of Dorsett’s ilk. Atrophying demand has rendered the one-dimensional fighting specialist obsolete, but it has paradoxically caused the contributing pugilist to become an exceptionally rare breed.
And on the open market what’s rare is expensive. That’s just supply and demand.