The Obsession With Protection

There’s a theory here and elsewhere that NHL teams need enforcers, not just because people find it fun to watch one guy hit another guy in the face, but because without enforcers players are going to get hurt.

I thought Lowetide had a nice backhanded comment at thought philosophy over at his other site this morning:

The Edmonton Oilers are probably going to spend a lot of money on someone like Jordin Tootoo this summer. We know that the management group in place subscribes to the theory that protection is required and that’s the reason RNH fell into the boards and hurt himself.

We’ve discussed in the past how there really isn’t any such thing as protection. Players get hit – and not just hit, hit in ways intended to cause injury – all the time regardless of how much muscle there is in the lineup.

But the other point is that injuries often turn out to be the result of bad luck, ruts in the ice, a mild hit that went wrong, or a 100 other things as frequently as they’re the result of somebody headhunting.

When we stroll down the Oilers’ injury list this year, we see that borne out. There’s no enforcer on the planet who can make Ryan Whitney’s knee or ankle better. Ben Eager’s recurring back problems aren’t going to get fixed that way. Darcy Hordichuk isn’t going to pound that rut in the ice into submission for having the temerity to take out Nugent-Hopkins. I’m also relatively confident that Andy Sutton’s groin injury would not have been prevented if only the Oilers had indulged in a little more pugilism.

Sure, there were a few examples of hard hits. Sarich on Hall probably would have resulted in nothing if Hall hadn’t fallen over with Sarich en route, but that’s one people feel should have been avenged. Ditto for Nash on Peckham (digression: though it probably would have been helpful if Peckham hadn’t been allowed to play two minutes after getting spread-eagled on the ice).

Personally, I think those hits are going to happen no matter what. Sarich is going to hit guys; it’s what he does. Nash is going to try and rub out guys in the corner when they have the puck; that’s one of the things he’s paid for. Anyway, the hits on Corey Potter and Alex Plante are the two that really stand out to me as particularly egregious, though again there’s no particular evidence than an enforcer (or another enforcer, or a different enforcer, or an enforcer who can play, or toughness in the top-six, or any of the other 100 variants of the ‘muscle in the lineup’ idea) is going to stop that sort of thing from happening.

But even if they did stop the hits on Potter and Plante, and even Hall and Peckham too, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would still have been injured this season. Same for Ryan Whitney. Same for Ben Eager. There’s no way around that.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • Aitch

    I may not be adding anything here, but it would appear that Willis is limiting the role played by the tough guys of the league to just protection. That’s a pretty one-dimensional player. SMacIntyre was that type of player. All he could do was intimidate and fight. But he couldn’t play hockey.

    We don’t need another SMacIntyre. What we do need is a couple of players capable of riding shotgun with some of the skill players when the need arises. Players who won’t hurt you on the scoreboard while protecting you on the roster sheet. They don’t have to be one-dimensional goons. I think we have just that player in Eager. I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt on his season last year and see how he does this season. The man can skate, hit, fight and actually play hockey when he keeps his head on straight.

  • Truth

    Alberta Highway Patrol Sherriffs should be removed from the road because they are not preventing accidents. Somebody bumped into my car in the parking lot this morning.

  • jonnyquixote

    This is a silly argument – in essence, the statement is that a hockey team doesn’t need enforcers because enforcers can’t 100% protect skill players from all and every injury.

    The real question should be: can they reduce the risk of injury (especially intentionally or negligently inflicted by an opposing player)?

    Maybe they do or maybe they don’t. I don’t know. I think there are likely too many variables for the mathletes to weigh in on this one with anything worth more than idle speculation or giggles. I think you’d have to look at situations where a star player received (or was about to receive) abuse from opposition, that opposition got his face punched in good, and then see how much room/courtesy that star player got in the immediate future from that opposition.

    The instigator rule may have changed things since then, but I do know that Gretzky gave Semenko a car and insisted McSorley come with him to California. He did those things for a reason, but maybe that reason was that they were secretly dating.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I wouldn’t mind if they acquired a tough “hockey player” or two. As for designated fighters, no thanks.

    Someone mentioned baseball. Maybe the league could have a roster spot for the designated fighter, like designated hitter, that was extra to the roster. They could think of it as a PR thing because everyone knows Americans only watch hockey for the fights.

  • Wax Man Riley

    There are different kinds of tough guys in the NHL. Tootoo is more of an assassin than a protector. If a game turns into a tit-for-tat, you ran my star so I’ll put yours in the hospital sort of affair, Tootoo is your guy. I think those tactics are for baseball.

    Around December this year Whitney came back for a few games with his bad ankle. Ryan Kesler skated by well after Whitney passed the puck and gave him a two hander on the ankle. Whitney wasn’t hurt, but could have been; doesn’t matter he could have been hurt. If Dave Semenko was on the team he would have taken the instigator or whatever and meted out some punishment right on Kesler even if he is smaller and it isn’t fair. That sort of tough guy keeps a*holes in line and has value.

    • D-Man

      I think the bigger issue is the validity of the instigator rule… I know the NHL will never take the rule out, but IMO allow the players to deal with the Kesler’s and the Cooke’s (circa 2010-11) themselves…

      I wonder how Kesler would have responded if a Smac or even a Hordi lined up against him the shift after that slash…

      I know – call me a Neanderthal, but I do think eliminating that rule will solve a huge amount of head hits we’re seeing today.

      • CaptainLander

        I would bet Kesler makes that slash ever time regardless of who lines up against him.

        I think Gretz did more to protect himself then Semenko ever did, by scoring almost every time the Oil had a power play.

  • @Meloncholyculkin

    Yeah, but how many 4th lines dont actually bleed chances against? They are, by definition, a collection of the worst players on the team. I get that it seems like BS, but when you mix in the testimonies of former enforcers it really appears as though they took on a lot of the agonizing presure of playing against the big uglies from the opposing teams. Many of them turned to vice just to cope with it themselves. (Not an excuse, just an observation)

    Many of these guys are loved by their teammates and men who get paid a tonne of cash to tinker with the chemistries of their dressing rooms are still handing out roster spots and ice time to tough guys, though less and less.

    If you cant quantify their contribution from in-game data then maybe it’s time to consider that the most integral part of their job isnt being done in-game.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    There’s still so little going on here that this issue keeps getting magnified. Teams, more often than not come into Rexall and dictate the pace of the game. The Oilers rarely initiate anything and continue to mostly respond to whats happened, after the fact. Teams exist in a hockey hell if their core player group is in transition (top 7 forwards,top 3 D and a goalie), till they have this group settled we’re in for much the same year after year.

    As the talent level continues to increase/mature this will become less of an issue. The game will change dramatically when the Oilers opponent is down 2-0. Till these kids take charge here, the Oilers will continue to lose the battle on the scoreboard and in the alley. Hall needs to be his own enforcer, Hopkins and Eberle will continue to reduce putting themselves in vulnerable positions.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Thank you Archeology Guy. The anti-enforcer bandwagon has been filling up lately, I suspect mostly with people that haven’t played hockey at a high level.

    Fact – Injuries are going to happen with and without enforcers so drop that out of any arguement. Like you say it may prevent 1 or 2 morons from running a skilled young player / year.

    Fact – Like it or not intimidation is still a big part of the NHL. Until the refs start calling games how the rule book says it should be called rather than “managing the game” this will not change. Remember, this league is slow to change and is very traditional (no touch icing).

    It’s that extra bit of courage and comfort that the skill players get from knowing they have a tough SOB on call should things get out of hand. There’s no advanced stat to indicate having a tough SOB helps win games – you’ll just have to rely on the players, coaches, and GMs that think a form of toughness is required on their team to be successful. I would think they know what they need to get through a NHL season.

    Fact – Finding a tough SOB that can play effectively is difficult. That’s where a shrewd GM and a coach that manages his icetime properly and pairs him up with appropriate linemates is required.

  • I think there is role for an enforcer on a team Jonathan! The Oilers have the perfect example of how this works if you have the ‘right’ enforcer!

    Ales Hemsky didn’t have too many shoulder problems when George Laraque was riding the range! After George left town there were a lot of key Oilers that ended up on IR with serious injuries courtesy of players like Derek Boogard! No, this is one thing I agree with Cherry on, the Oil need to protect their young guys & it should be one big mean mother trucker who can skate & hit!

  • CaptainLander

    Good on you Willis, you often hear about other teams “Taking liberties” (a term I hate). Attempting to injury another player is a part of the game and a rather lucrative career for those that do it. Torres on Hossa was not exactly an attempt to separate the player from the puck. In fact every time a player “finishes a check” is not an attempt to separate a player from the puck, which I understand was the original purpose of having physical contact. Do individuals like Torres not make those hits because he may get a punch from someone bigger then him, not a chance. I don’t believe he will stop doing it after a 25 game suspension, because as much as the league would hate to admit it he said it true after the Eberle hit, ” If I don’t make that hit, I won’t have a job.” and for millions of dollars sure as heck he will make that hit again. Hitting with the intent to injury is and will always be a part of the game, but even if you removed this kind of hitting from the game you will not prevent injury. I am fine removing the dancing bear routine from the game. To replace a player that may have an ability to score a game winning goal for a guy that plays his best “hockey” without a stick in his hand is ludicrous. The Oilers as a team need to show they can win with a couple injuries, if they can’t they will never win.

  • Spydyr

    So… one remembers the Boogieman(God rest his soul) running rough shot over this team for years.Perhaps Hemsky will remember.

    Tough guys are still needed in today NHL.

  • dawgbone98

    @Ogden Brother Jr. – Team Strudwick for coach

    Players also believe that putting the left skate on before the right skate is better luck (or whatever their favourite superstition is).

  • Mantastic

    I agree with Arc, it’s more a mental protection then a physical one, so that star players can play the way they want without getting bullied mentally or thrown off their game.

  • ItsTheBGB

    The Eberle injury, too. If we had 7 enforcers on the team, there’s no way Jamie Benn would leave the bench. He would have never caught Eberle’s leg during a routine round-about on the ice, he would be quivering on the pine in fear for his life!

  • I really dont think the role of the enforcer is there to change the game so much as it is there to ease the minds of the other players. They feel better knowing someone is there to have their back. It’s an emotional salve.

    The enforcer is there like John Coffey in the Green Mile. He can take all the evil and turn it towards himself.

    Will he prevent big hits? Maybe a couple (over a season) but he isnt a force field. What he will do is add a little bit of courage, hopefully, or prevent that moment of hesitation from hampering our guys.

    There has to be a reason clubs are giving them money they seemingly dont have to. My best guess is that they affect the dressing room more than the game.

    • melancholyculkin

      I’m not sure I buy that. Maybe there is something to making sure your stars have “peace of mind”, but I would think that having a fourth line that doesn’t bleed goals and scoring chances against would do a lot more to put Taylor Hall at ease.