There was once a time in the NHL when having an enforcer-type of player was a necessity for any NHL team, a player whose role was to protect a team’s star players from other teams’ most physical players. But as the NHL game has evolved into a more skilled game that requires more speed and skill than a slower, more physical style of play. In this piece, NoVa Caps looks at the different ways in which the role of an enforcer or enforcer-type player has changed and what the term “enforcer” now means.
As mentioned above, the longtime role of a player called an enforcer was to protect their respective team’s star player from the opposition’s more physical players, whether through physicality or fisticuffs. Throughout the history of the league, there have been a number of notable players who made their living using their fists as their main source of income, such as Bob Probert, Tie Domi, Stu Grimson, and (former Capital) Donald Brashear, among others. None of the above players provided their teams with much in the way of offense, but the safety and well-being of their star teammates was worth the lack of production.
But in the last decade or so, the term enforcer has become less and less common when discussing the role of players on a team. While there are players who are able to throw punches and deliver big hits (such as the Capitals’ Tom Wilson), there are no longer players who are employed solely for their physicality and ability to fight. The reason being is that the NHL is becoming more and more of a skilled and speed game, and has taken a number of steps in increasing offense league-wide, including changing regulations for goalie equipment and instituting more rules and penalties. So what exactly does the term “enforcer” mean in today’s NHL?
When someone thinks of a player as an enforcer in today’s NHL, it is more than likely a player who is willing to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate and brings a physical style of play, while still contributing relatively regularly offensively. Wilson, for example, has developed a reputation around the league as a player who is not afraid to stand up for teammates and delivering thunderous body-checks, and in the last few seasons, becoming an offensive contributor. Drafted in the first-round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft with the hopes of becoming a power forward that is able to contribute offensively, the rugged right winger has only recently begun to flourish offensively, after being used as primarily a player whose job was to fight and protect his teammates.
In today’s NHL, the “old” enforcer is all but nonexistent, replaced by faster, generally younger, skilled players. Unlike in the past, when older players could lengthen their careers by using their fists, older players in the NHL are usually without luck unless they prove they are capable of producing offensively. And while there are still players who play in the physical style that enforcers in the 1990’s and 1980’s did, they are no longer prioritized as they once were, as evidenced by the decreasing number of fights in the NHL in recent seasons. It is clear that like the ever-changing NHL game, the definition and role of the term enforcer will continue to evolve and change.
By Michael Fleetwood