You may or may not have seen the two videos that surfaced on April 22nd.
The first was this Grantland feature, including the Flames' own Brian McGrattan amongst others, talking about the death of the enforcer and how analytics have contributed to their downfall:
While the second was a heartfelt message from Dan Carcillo, talking about losing his best friend in hockey, Steve Montador, and how there is little-to-no support for players once they retire. (Full story here at Players' Tribune)
Both videos raise several talking points, and we are going to discuss these points here.
Personally, I feel a fair amount of sympathy for enforcers. After all, they are human beings, and hockey has been their life for many, many years. Enforcing has been their life's job, and if their job disappears in the only thing they know how to do, it is going to be hard. It is no different to anybody else being laid off and having to look for work, and nothing being available in their sector. That has happened a hell of a lot in the last seven years. It's a sad reality of life.
That being said, what would happen in the "real world" that the rest of us live in? We would have to adapt to a new situation, have to retrain for a new sector or adjust our previous skill sets to make them fit in a new role. Being a hockey player is no different.
Heavyweights in hockey these days need to have more than just being big and hard to their game. They need to at least be able to play a bit in some manner, whether that is in a shut-down role, or using their power offensively. It is an obvious early comparison to make but look at Michael Ferland. He's a big, strong guy who puts his weight about and isn't afraid to drop the gloves if it is necessary. But, and this is a key point, he can play too. He can force offence and contribute to the team game in more ways than using his size and strength. If he couldn't back up his physicality with an additional use to the side, he wouldn't be playing.
I think the idea of big guys fighting giving the team an impetus is false too. Yes, the crowd and the players feed off the energy of a fight, or a big hit, but you don't have to be 6'5", 250lbs to fight and throw the body. Look at Lance Bouma, Josh Jooris, even Sam Bennett. They're not afraid to throw the body, drop the gloves if it's needed - and they can play too. Again, you need to be able to bring more to the table than just fists.
By The Numbers
Maybe advanced stats have something to do with it, but it is not a bad thing. Advanced stats have allowed hockey fans, and coaches to a certain extent, to see who is contributing and who isn't. Whose fault is it that enforcers have a poorer CF% than the guy six inches and 50 pounds smaller than him on a different line? The numbers haven't made it that way. The enforcers aren't showing their worth - the numbers are just making it obvious.
There are always alternatives to the NHL, though. Kevin Westgarth made a home for himself in the UK, where Tom Sestito was once a point per game and Paul Bissonnette now has a cult following after his brief time in Cardiff. The German and Czech leagues will always welcome strong men. There are opportunities if you are willing to take them, the same there are in any walk of life.
I do agree with Dan Carcillo's comments. It is absolutely criminal that there is no support network for players once they retire. It is a problem prevalent in all sports. Over here, there is a large number of ex-professional footballers who "fall off the rails" once they have hung up their boots, turning to drink, drugs or gambling. You would think the NHLPA would have some kind of fallback system set up, but it doesn't appear so - yet.
That said, it applies to all levels of hockey, not just "the show". We often get players come to the UK to finish their careers. Sometimes, they arrive on University deals - allowing them to study, fully funded, in addition to playing hockey. Former Flames prospect Gord Baldwin has just completed one of these courses, and he now has something to move into when he retires. But out of all the players who come here, that is only a small percentage. More needs to be done at all levels of the sport to support players leaving the game.
Enforcers have been heading out of the NHL for a long time, regardless of the statistical revolution and the development of advanced metrics. What the players in the first video are really protesting is the change of culture in the NHL, and the advanced stats are just a step in that process.The NHL changed directions after the 2004-05 lockout, and the enforcer role would never be able to adapt to the new league. This video seems like another attack on the analytics movement, slagging them for killing the careers of good, hardworking guys.
A New Era
The biggest change from the 04-05 lockout was the salary cap, which forced teams to become more efficient. In the days of wild spending, you could build a top-heavy team and then fill the bottom with players to protect your investments. Enforcers were a type of luxury; cheap players who can dissuade other players from attacking the stars. Perfect for the relaxed player safety era.
With a salary cap and increased focus on safety, teams were forced to offload some of their more expensive stars to stay under. To compensate, they had to build around less prominent, yet still useful guys. The rule changes also favoured faster, more skilled players rather than big, physical players; everything the enforcer was not.
This was all before the stats revolution, mind you.
Even when contribution was measured in points and plus/minus, enforcers really had a harder time justifying their roles after the salary cap. When you aren't allowed to have three or four players scoring 100 points for your team, you need to spread out the scoring. Where does the enforcer fit into that?
The answer is nowhere. They have simply been replaced. Before the 2013-14 season, Jay Feaster said something about how the Flames needed "functional toughness" in order to stay alive in the NHL. Feaster was behind on the times, but he was right. Looking at the average points and PIMS by the top 30 most penalized players in the league, we can see how the league has adapted to a tough, but skilled mindset.
|Season||Average Points||Average PIMS|
It's a rough methodology, but it is easy to see my point. The data isn't exactly a straight line, but the general trend is that points are up, and penalties are down. Even the top 30 pugilists in the lockout shortened season of 2012-13 averaged around the same amount of points as those before the 04-05 lockout.
Even though the numbers aren't eye-poppingly high, it definitely confirms that the fact that removing enforcers and replacing them with the functionally tough brings up points and reduces penalty minutes.
The argument for enforcers, echoed in the video, was basically to protect the players, but when the enforcers were shipped out for more useful guys, the problems started disappearing. The enforcer was justified because of the circular logic that created their role. The other team has an enforcer, so we must have one.
As teams slowly offloaded them since 05-06, the penalties started disappearing. Powerplay opportunities per game has started dropping; the previous four seasons rank in the bottom eight for the stat. The circle was broken. It certainly can't be argued that their absence has hurt teams either, as point production is up amongst tough guys.
In addition to protection, all three enforcers in the video discussed how they contributed in ways off of the scoresheet, with the intangibles that they provide that are apparently rare in the NHL. It assumes that all other players on the team aren't team-oriented, hard-working, leaders, selfless, or tough.
While it is true that some players in the league don't necessarily fit those descriptions, or are missing one or two of those qualities, you cannot think that enforcers are the only ones who can provide those qualities, or provide them at a higher level than all of their teammates.
Most teams have almost 90% of their roster thinking that way, with or without enforcers. It's not the goons who make the difference. I would say it is more of a media-driven narrative than actual fact that the star players lack intangibles and enforcers provide it.
The intangibles argument is also spotty because it cannot be measured. How do you really measure heart? As previously established, it is hard to say that a good majority of hockey players lack "heart" or the will to push their game to the extreme for the team.
Blocked shots and hits are often counted as indicators of heart, but there are many other players who lead those categories and can contribute in more areas than enforcers (Lance Bouma, Kris Russell, etc). Intangibles are necessary for hockey players, but you simply aren't going to be able to justify your existence in a league craving roster efficiency using invisible metrics.
Of course, it is hard to discuss the decline of enforcer culture without mentioning the deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard in the 2011 offseason. These tragedies further highlighted the concussion and CTE issues plaguing hockey, and how it affected those who often took repeated blows to the head.
A little understood, and often ignored aspect of sports in general, the NHL was slowly starting to acknowledge the potential damage in the game. While no one claimed hockey was an 100% safe sport, the deaths of these three men loomed over the heads of those who made the decisions. Did they really want to send out a player who could potentially be killed by doing his job? The culture definitely changed after these deaths, but that isn't acknowledged in the Grantland video.
More recently, Steve Montador's unexpected death has brought the CTE issue back to hockey. The subject of Daniel Carcillo's video for the Player's Tribune, Montador's death inspired Carcillo to discuss the post-hockey life of enforcers. The low pay they command relative to their fame and danger faced in their career isn't enough to support them after hockey, especially when they are the ones most likely to be battling long-term injuries.
Carcillo highlights a point that reverberates throughout the sports world; leagues don't care about their players after they retire. It becomes incredibly easy for tough-guys to fall into drug dependency and painkiller abuse, and after they pass
This dark side of enforcers isn't mentioned in the first video, even though it is arguably the prime reason they are disappearing. The deaths of Belak, Rypien, and Boogaard were shocking enough to change the entire mentality regarding fighting. People began to feel that a death on ice was inevitable, and that would be unacceptable.
As previous seasons had shown, enforcers were the ones creating the problems they claimed they would solve. Teams cut them from their team, and found almost no negative effects. The enforcer was unnecessary.
So was it analytics that killed the goon? Probably not.
Most NHL teams are either skeptical, or dismissive of advanced stats; only four teams have full-blown analytics departments. The rise of analytics from the fringe to widely accepted (among hockey fans) was timed perfectly with the continuing decline of the enforcer. Analytics just further proved the point that enforcers were only hurting the team, but they weren't the ones to blame.
By targeting the stats guys in the Grantland video, they ignore the real reason for their unemployment. They are players whose line of work could get them killed, and no one wants that anymore. It is not an issue of "brains vs. brawn" or modern hockey bloggers who never played the game telling traditionalists what to do, it is an issue of safety.
After the NHL and its teams ignored the danger behind enforcers for so long, it is ironic that those in the Grantland video continue to do the same.