Enforcers: How the Role Has Changed In the Modern NHL

WASHINGTON, DC - November 14, 2010: Washington Capitals defenseman John Erskine (#4) and Atlanta Thrashers forward Eric Boulton fight in the second period of their NHL ice hockey game at Verizon Center.

(Photo: NHL)

editorialBob Probert. Stu Grimson. Tie Domi. The first thing one may be thinking is why are these names significant? Yes, all three were hockey players, and yes they no longer play. But these three men were not like their teammates, who scored and defended: these men were all enforcers, the goons of the hockey world.

San Jose Sharks' John Scott, top, fights with Vancouver Canucks' Tom Sestito during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Stockton, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

When one thinks of the role of enforcer, opinions vary. This is because the need for enforcers to protect star players is no longer a necessity; why men like Paul Bissonnette and John Scott have to settle for AHL contracts. In the 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s, enforcers could be found on almost every NHL team because back then, the NHL was not as fast-paced and scoring-based as it is today. Players who messed with a team’s top player could expect to answer to the fists of the enforcer. But in today’s NHL, the game is played much faster and is centered around offense and tight defense. With rules regarding physicality strengthened in recent years, enforcers’ style of play simply does not have a place.

brashearIn 2006, the Capitals signed renowned tough guy Donald Brashear to play the role of protector to the team’s star, Alexander Ovechkin. Brashear’s role was simple: send a message through hard-hitting physical play and, if necessary, his fists if anybody dared to rough up Ovechkin. It was this style of play that resulted in Brashear to be 13th all-time in NHL history with 2,364 penalty minutes (PIM). But how would men like Brashear, Domi, Probert, and Grimson fare in today’s NHL; one that prohibits hits to the head, and seemingly deems every big hit illegal? With the way the NHL has cracked down on hitting, their time would likely be limited; and would likely be confined to the American Hockey League.

20130205_bjcrombeen_zacrinaldo_446wBut what kind of players can be considered enforcers in the modern era of NHL hockey? Well, there are still players such as John Scott and Paul Bissonnette who have been condemned to the AHL with occasional recalls, and then there are players such as Zac Rinaldo who are hard hitters that drop the gloves frequently but aren’t really considered enforcers. It appears as though the term enforcer has changed dramatically in meaning, and now seems to be defined as a player who will drop the gloves willingly, yet still provides the occasional offense.

The reason?: the NHL has become so fast in pace of play and strong defense is necessary that enforcers (who aren’t particularly good at those things) have no place in the game. While fighting is still in the game, the number of fights has decreased rapidly in the last several years as the NHL has cracked down on hard hits and strived for more offense.

While the definition of the term enforcer has changed, there are still players who take on the “tough guy” role on teams: for the Capitals, it’s Tom Wilson. Though he was not drafted in the first round to play an enforcer-like role, it seems as though he will remain that way unless the Capitals bring in another tough player, which doesn’t seem likely. No matter which way you slice it, the enforcer is slowly, but surely, being pushed out of the game.

By Michael Fleetwood

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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1 Response to Enforcers: How the Role Has Changed In the Modern NHL

  1. Pingback: As the NHL Game has Changed, So Too Has the Role of Enforcer-type Players | NoVa Caps

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