Not To Be Messed With: Hockey’s best fighters

Watch as Sabres’ Evander Kane fights Panthers’ Alex Petrovic not once, not twice, but three times.

This is a post about hockey fights.

No this isn’t a post about concussions, or how fighting in hockey is bad, or how enforcers are going away. More talented writers than myself have already written that article 10,000 times. This is about something else. And yeah, I definitely fell down the hockeyfights.com rabbit hole that so many hockey fans fall down while writing this.

This conversation between P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty caught my eye recently.

I’m pretty sure Pacioretty was kidding when he asked if he could fight Wayne Simmonds, but I’m also pretty sure Subban was dead serious when he told his captain he could not fight Wayne Simmonds.

Fast forward a few weeks to a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Ryan McDonagh and Simmonds start mixing it up and then this happens.

Debate and outrage regarding the punch aside, holy smokes what a punch. Simmonds knocked a guy out with a jab. It kind of reminded me of Anderson Silva’s knockout against Forrest Griffin. You look at it and go “How did he knock him out with a jab?” Then you realize “Oh, wait, the guy throwing the punch is Anderson Silva.” Same deal here. “How did he knock him out with a jab? Wait – it’s Wayne Simmonds.”

I used to get on Dion Phaneuf‘s case all the time because Simmonds challenged him every time the Leafs played the Flyers and Phaneuf wouldn’t oblige him. That’s easy for me to yell at my webcam, but at the end of the day, I’m not the guy who has to throw down with Wayne Simmonds.

The Rangers sent out Dylan McIlrath to exact revenge on Simmonds in New York. That’s six feet five inches, 220 pounds of McIlrath against six feet two inches, 183 pounds of Simmonds. At least in the UFC, which is still illegal in New York State by the way, this fight would never happen because Simmonds is a full two weight classes below McIlrath. He still held his own.

I say all that about Simmonds to say this: He is one of a handful of players in the NHL who most players know they shouldn’t fight. To me, that is the new breed of “tough guy” in this league. You still have guys like Cody McLeod, who leads the NHL with nine fights so far this season. You still have guys like Shawn Thornton, but enforcers like him tend to fight other enforcers so his fight count is lower than ever before.

These are the players that don’t have to fight very often because everyone knows it’s a bad idea.

DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN

They call him “Big Buff” for a reason. NHL.com lists him as the league’s heaviest player at 260 pounds, though supposedly that’s a dirty lie and he’s even more than that. He trucks guys with the biggest hits in the league and whenever he does the opposing team sends two or three guys at him just to contain him. He only has three regular season fights since the beginning of 2010. You know why? He’s Dustin Byfuglien.

ZDENO CHARA

“The Big Z”. Generally speaking, don’t fight anyone with the word “big” in their nickname. Chara hasn’t had an NHL fight since the 2013-14 season, although he mixed it up with Mark Borowiecki this season. Luckily for Borowiecki, Chara did what he has done a few times out of mercy and cocked his fist for the “I could end you but I’ve decided not to” warning.

MILAN LUCIC

Lucic has one of the most notorious tempers in the NHL. Between that temper, his 6-foot-3 233 lb. frame, and his amateur boxing background, his list of takers is getting shorter with just two fights this season. This is a bit of an older fight, but watch this bout between Lucic and former Maple Leafs tough guy Jay Rosehill to see the difference between Lucic and most other hockey fighters. Right around the 1:00 mark, Lucic and Rosehill become separated from the standard hockey fight clinch. Rosehill is trying desperately to get the clinch back while Lucic gets into his boxing stance. You can be big, you can be tough, and you can have a bunch of hockey fights under your belt, but if the guy you’re fighting is a trained boxer, well, good luck!

EVANDER KANE

Kane just passed his career-high in fights in one season with three and they all came in one game against Alex Petrovic. It’s just my opinion but Kane torched Petrovic in each bout. Kane’s first NHL fight was against Deryk Engelland as an 18-year-old in 2009. Engo in your first scrap? Are you nuts?!? You might remember his second career fight a little better. It was against Matt Cooke.

Since that punch, Kane hasn’t had to drop the gloves too often.

DEREK MACKENZIE

I spoke to a few people while writing this and MacKenzie’s name kept coming up. I was surprised because MacKenzie stands just 5-foot-11, and at just 181 pounds he’s the lightest person on this list. Both Colby Armstrong and an active NHL player brought up MacKenzie as a guy who can throw. I’m sure Josh Jooris would agree.

BRENT BURNS

Oh, Brent Burns. Sometimes between gawking at his bushy beard, Chewbacca mask, and videos about his exotic animals, tattoos, and adorable kids, we forget that he’s actually 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. As Jeff Marek told me, Burns has a “long fuse”, meaning it takes a lot to get him mad enough to fight. When he does though – it’s on. His most recent fight was last season and I’ll let Antoine Roussel tell you how that went.

Don’t. Poke. The Wookiee.

HONOURABLE MENTION

One NHL player told me Mike Fisher was somebody you should think twice before messing with.

Both Colby Armstrong and Jeff Marek told me that a player they both consider “sneaky tough” is… Benoit Pouliot. I couldn’t believe it either but Armstrong played in the NHL and Marek is a hockey fight historian, so I’ll take their word for it!

Gabriel Landeskog‘s name came up a few times, not so much for other players’ fear of him, but because of his lack of fear of anybody else.

Ryan Reaves was one of the first players Nick Kypreos mentioned as a player you shouldn’t mess with. While definitely true, I didn’t include him on the list because 19 goals in 321 career NHL games suggest he’s mostly an enforcer. He also mostly fights other guys with similarly low point totals.

Dalton Prout is obviously a glaring name left off this list, especially after he fractured Chris Stewart‘s jaw last week. I found it hard to justify putting his four points so far this season on the list, even if he’s a defender.

Lastly, I had to leave Tom Wilson off the list. Why? He’s tough and people around the league know he’s tough. The problem with him is this is a list of players who rarely fight because other players are afraid of them. Between last season, last spring’s playoffs, this year’s preseason, and in 55 games so far this season, Wilson has fought 20 times. Too many frequent fighter miles for this list, which certainly isn’t to say you shouldn’t mess with him.

WHO’S NEXT?

You got to think Darnell Nurse will get on this list soon. He’s a rookie willing to take on any opponent, similar to Evander Kane in 2009. He’s a sleeper pick but you can also add Nathan MacKinnon to the list of NHL players who participates in some form of martial arts. He told Sportsnet’s Sophia Jurksztowicz he likes boxing to help stay fit.

People keep saying that fighting in hockey is going away; it’s dying. That’s probably somewhat true, but maybe fighting in hockey is just evolving. Maybe players are picking their spots a little more wisely. Maybe players are starting to “fight angry” more instead of some arbitrary fight right off the faceoff for momentum or something.

Fighting in hockey might be down but it’s not out.