The Oilers are 7-2-2 when they play a game where they pick up a fighting major. That sounds impressive, but does it mean anything?
Leaving aside the obvious argument that if choosing to fight helped the Oilers win games, choosing to fight must necessarily have helped the opposition lose games, let’s look at the actual situations.
|Jan. 20||3-2 SOW||VAN||Ben Eager vs. Zack Kassian (Kassian), 2-2. Nobody else scored|
|Jan. 24||2-1 OTW||L.A.||Ladislav Smid vs. Jordan Nolan (Nolan), 0-0. L.A. scored a period later|
|Feb. 28||5-1 W||DAL||Sam Gagner vs. Brenden Dillon (draw), 2-0 EDM. EDM scored less than a min later|
|Mar. 5||4-3 SOL||CBJ||Jeff Petry vs. Matt Calvert (Calvert), 2-1 CBJ. EDM scored four mins later|
|Mar. 7||3-0 L||DET||Mike Brown vs. Jordin Tootoo (Brown), 0-0. DET scored less than a min later|
|Mar. 8||6-0 L||NSH||Mike Brown vs. Rich Clune (Brown), 1-0 NSH. NSH scored 12 mins later|
|Mar. 15||3-2 OTL||DET||Mike Brown vs. Jordin Tootoo (draw), 1-0 EDM. EDM scored four mins later|
|Mar. 26||3-0 W||STL||Mike Brown vs. Barret Jackman (draw), 3-0 EDM. Nobody else scored|
|Mar. 28||6-4 W||CBJ||Mike Brown vs. Jared Boll (draw), 2-2. CBJ scored eight mins later|
|Apr. 3||8-2 W||CGY||Mike Brown vs. Steve Begin (draw), 1-0 CGY. CGY scored less than a min later|
|Apr. 3||8-2 W||CGY||Ryan Jones vs. Chris Butler (draw), 5-2 EDM. EDM scored four mins later|
|Apr. 3||8-2 W||CGY||Ryan Whitney vs. Tim Jackman (Jackman), 6-2 EDM. EDM scored four mins later|
|Apr. 26||6-1 W||MIN||Mike Brown vs. Zenon Konopka (Konopka), 0-0. EDM scored less than a min later|
Three of the fights above occurred in garbage time – situations where the game was out of reach. On March 26, the Oilers had a 3-0 lead when Mike Brown and Barret Jackman went at it, and on April 3 vs. Calgary two of the fights (Jones/Butler and Whitney/Jackman) came after the Oilers had 5-2 and 6-2 leads, respectively.
Throwing out the garbagetime fights, it really isn’t clear that the Oilers played better following a tilt; in five of the nine games, the next team to score was the opposition. Winning the fight didn’t help either; the two cases where the Oilers clearly own the fight (vs. Detroit on March 7 and Nashville on March 8) not only did the opposition score next but the combined score was a humiliating 9-0 combined.
In this specific case, this is an example of lies, damned lies and statistics: there’s a superficial case to be made that fighting benefits the team, but upon further examination it falls apart. There’s simply no reason to believe that fighting caused the Oilers to win these games.
Fighting in General
A little over a year ago, a guy named Terry Appleby generated considerable interest with a claim that fighting swings momentum in hockey games. Essentially, what he looked at was how frequently teams generate shots, and found that shot generation goes up after a fight; his conclusion, therefore, was that fighting swings momentum.
There were some problems with Appleby’s approach, but the biggest was this: there was simply no way to tell which team benefitted more from the fight; both teams tended to see a jump in performance after a tilt. Some of the other problems, as well as a statistical look at what actually happens after a fight, can be found here.
That is not to say there is no benefit to come from fighting; all else being equal a team with bigger and stronger players is going to be better, and a team with bigger and stronger players is going to be more prone to fighting. Intangible benefits, such as that caused by physical intimidation or increased confidence from having a tough guy on the bench should certainly also be considered.
The benefit, however, from fighting itself (as opposed to being bigger, stronger, etc.) is going to be pretty small as a rule. Gabriel Desjardins, after running the numbers, summarized the benefit this way:
Now before you get excited about your favorite team signing a new goon, remember that an NHL team needs to improve its goal differential by approximately six goals to win one additional game. So winning a fight is worth a little more than 1/80th of a win in the standings; given that the best fighters might win at most ten fights in a season, the direct benefit is probably on the order of having the equipment guys make sure nobody’s playing with an illegal stick. This is not to say that aggressive and physical play won’t win games but upgrading their main fighter from Colton Orr to Donald Brashear won’t do anything for the New York Rangers.
In other words: being willing to drop the gloves is a useful skill in the NHL, but one that should be well down on the priority list. No matter how often Don Cherry says otherwise.
Recently around the Nation Network
- NHL Numbers: Tomas Vokoun to start for Pittsburgh, and it’s the right call
- Flames Nation: NHL equivalencies for the top 30 in the 2013 draft
- Canucks Army: Vancouver gets swept
- Willis: Should the Oilers consider keeping Nikolai Khabibulin?
- Willis: Which teams did the Oilers’ kid line play well against?
- Gregor: No more body contact in peewee hockey
- Strudwick: Puppet master
- Willis: Timeline
- Follow Jonathan Willis on Twitter!