IS THE ANSWER JOHN FERGUSON?

ferguson common

This is John Ferguson. 50 years ago he was an enforcer in the NHL. During Ferguson’s career, being an enforcer involved playing alongside Jean Beliveau, or Henri Richard—skilled men who delivered a pass and expected it back on the tape and on the fly. The role of enforcers has changed over the decades, but may be returning to the Ferguson-era definition in the future.

WHERE WE’VE BEEN

It’s interesting to look back and see what kind of offense was being delivered by the NHL’s enforcers—defined for our purposes as the toughest and most penalized forwards in the game—in 1966 compared to today. Here’s a list of PIM leaders (forwards) by year, once a decade, with their boxcars alongside for comparison.

Year Player PIM Total
Boxcars
1966-67 John Ferguson 177   67GP, 20-22-42
1976-77 Tiger Williams   338 77GP, 18-25-43
1986-87 Tim Hunter 361 73GP, 6-15-21
1996-97 Gino Odjick 371   70GP, 5-8-13
2006-07 Ben Eager 233 63GP, 6-5-11
2013-14 Tom Sestito 213 77GP, 5-4-9

The NHL of my youth had tough, rough players who were required to skate a regular shift (back then it was three lines and two extra forwards who dressed, total 11F’s) and the numbers reflect it. I’m no expert and this isn’t research, but it appears the role of enforcer as actual player continued from pre-expansion through the first several waves of expansion, and perhaps the NHL/WHA merger would be a good place to look for the beginning of the ‘pugilist as specialist’ gift to our game.

WHERE WE MAY BE HEADED

Travis Yost had an interesting article up this week at TSN about 5×5 play, and how the game is changing in an interesting way. Yost talks about “fewer guys picking up scrap minutes in smaller roles” and then backs it up with logic and reason. 

His article is here.

  • Yost: The number of forwards playing ten or less minutes a night has dropped
    from 109 in 2007, to 65 in 2014. And the number of forwards playing
    between 13 and 16 minutes a night has moved from 153 in 2007 to 231 in
    2014. As a group, teams may still be leaning on their star players, but
    there’s also been a more balanced spread of total ice time than there
    was seven years ago.

Interesting. How would this apply to the Oilers? Well, last year Edmonton employed 15 forwards who met Yost criteria (245 minutes at even strength). How many of them played fewer than 10 minutes a night?

  1. Taylor Hall 16:27
  2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 16:09
  3. Jordan Eberle 15:49
  4. David Perron 15:49
  5. Sam Gagner 15:21
  6. Ales Hemsky 13:29
  7. Mark Arcobello 12:17
  8. Nail Yakupov 12:07
  9. Boyd Gordon 11:27
  10. Ryan Smyth 11:10
  11. Matt Hendricks 11:04
  12. Anton Lander 10:38
  13. Jesse Joensuu 8:45

  14. Ryan Jones 8:29

  15. Luke Gazdic 5:45

The three players underlined would appear to be on the endangered list, but Joensuu and Jones are not enforcers. We can probably assume those players would have played more than 10 minutes a night with better performances—and even that isn’t terribly fair, as Joensuu had concussions issues and I’m not convinced Ryan Jones ever fully recovered from that eye injury during the lockout. Hopefully he’s fully well now and can resume his career.

That leaves us with Luke Gazdic, enforcer.

THE TIMES THEY ARE-A-CHANGING. OR ARE THEY?

The NHL as a whole may have decided that rolling four lines is a good idea, and that a balanced team has 10-minute men at evens across the board, but that doesn’t mean the Oilers are marching in lock step. I think we can safely assume the Oilers are torn on the issue, reflected by Dallas Eakins in the spring when discussing (at the time) new acquisition Mark Fraser.

  • Eakins: “I can easily stand here and argue “Yes, we need that.” We’ve got a
    guy back there that’s more than willing to fill the role  with Mark
    Fraser and, uh, one side of me says “absolutely, we need the toughness
    up front, we need it on our back end.
    But, Mark [Spector], I…
    and that’s the honest to God’s truth, there’s one side of me that says:
    “Yes, we need to old school it and we’ve got to have those guys.” And,
    then there’s another side of me looking at how teams are, some other
    teams are building and… I’m not sure.”

I suspect the Oilers are not alone. I suspect NHL teams are wrestling with this problem and would bet that new analytics hire Tyler Dellow has his work cut out for him trying to convince Edmonton to drop the enforcer and hire another actual NHL player.

Maybe the answer is John Ferguson. A tough guy who can take and make a pass, score a little, protect the investment and intimidate as required. What would that look like? 

The NHL’s current template appears to be a guy who can play 10 even-strength minutes a night and not get killed by the shot differential. What’s the name of that guy on these Oilers? Their template appears to be out of time. 

We wait.

  • Gordie Wayne

    I think if Gazdic can learn like a Bolland role, he could be effective on the tough minutes line. He seems like a great team mate, is certainly one of the better fighters. But he can actually skate so he’s not just a nuclear deterrent, looking to fight the other team’s nuclear deterrent. It would be really great if he could play to the level of Larouque, and expect to chip in like 9 goals a year while playing on a possession energy or shut down line.

    But, in terms of the future, look no further than Greg Chase. He has size, decent skill, is a pest, and can back it up. I know he plays right wing but he will fill a big void left if Perron decides to go to free agency in two years.

    Having said that, with eventual arrival of Klefbom, Nurse, Fayne, Nikitin, Yakimov (fingers crossed), and Draisaitl, Edmonton is going to be a much larger and tougher team to play against.

    Dream of dreams I want to see Chase get a call up and play even one shift with Perron. That would be the peskiest line in hockey.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    This is pie in the sky. There’s only one Lucic, and every team in the league wants him.
    This reminds me of all the posters who think that the Oilers should have a defence man just like Shea Weber – or Shea Weber himself if we can trade Mucil straight across for him.

    • Lowetide

      I don’t think it’s pie in the sky at all. Philly has Wayne Simmonds, that’s a guy who could play on a skill line in any era. Lucic as a skill guy isn’t really the template imo, it’s a guy who is tough, but also can play the game with really good players.

      Like Wayne Simmonds. Do the Oilers have a Wayne Simmonds on the way?

  • Gordie Wayne

    Sign Georges Laraque as a “fight coach” and get him working with Mitch Moroz on a one on one basis.

    He already knows how to score a bit in junior, has the size, fights a bit in junior…now take it one step further and get Laraque to teach him the tricks of the trade and turn him into a fighting machine.

    Now that is thinking out of the box!

  • Bishai in the Benches

    I would suggest Matt Hendricks fits the bill for what the team is in need of, however he is a very different player from John Ferguson.

    Last season Hendricks played twice as many minutes at evens than Gazdic, additionally he logged some time short handed. Therefore he is more useful, in the sense that he plays more hockey, the ultimate point of a hockey player…

    Hendricks weighs 2 pounds less than Gazdic, and fought 12 times, just 3 times fewer than Gazdic, so he checks the coke machine box that the oilers seem to be infatuated with. Also, this seems to be a counterproductive and backwards way of thinking, but if we are of the opinion that a “tough guy” should pick up penalty minutes (I do not have this opinion), Hendricks picked up 1.5 PIM/60min to Gazdics 0.8PIM/60min.

    Last season, Luke Gazdic’s most common opponent was Mike Brown, someone who fits the bill of a puncher nearing extinction in the NHL. Conversely, Matt Hendricks most common opponent was Ryan Suter, an elite level defenseman who signed a deal worth $98,000,000 to play hockey, usually they don’t give people that much money if they aren’t any good at what they do.

    When Luke Gazdic is on the ice, the oilers lost the “potential scoring event” (aka corsi) battle by 26.77 events per 60 minutes of playing time. Hendricks, while still not good, was significantly better, losing the potential scoring event battle by 17.56 events per 60 minutes. This contrast is even more shocking in the light of zone starts. Hendricks started a paltry 26.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Gazdic started 52.5% in the offensive zone.

    Finally, according to Parkatti’s expected goals for and against totals from last year, we would expect Gazdic to be on the ice for 9 goals for, and 17.3 goals against, almost a 2:1 ratio, terrible by NHL standards, whereas Hendricks clocks in at an expected 10.2 goals for, and 14.6 goals against, much more respectable numbers.

    I definitely agree that times are changing in the NHL, the pure enforcer role is dying and it frustrates me to no end to see Westgarth invited to camp. However, I think defensive specialists are still alive and well, and meshing toughness with semi-respectable play in your own end can create for a useful NHL player.

    TLDR
    Hendricks=defensive abilities and toughness > Gazdic=awful hockey player and toughness

    Edit: I was reading hockeyfights.com for player weights, which isn’t accurate. The oilers site lists Gazdic at 240, and Hendricks at 211. The rest of my points still hold true.

  • Lowetide

    Why are PIMs such a positive stat? Is taking offsetting roughing penalties after the whistle, or getting a 10 minute misconduct a stat that indicates anything hockeywise? Never mind all the tripping, hooking, interference calls. If you want to talk about fighting, just reference how many fights a guy has a year. No need for this garbage stat of PIMs.

  • BlazingSaitls

    It seems like Oilers are in a “what would the Flames Do?” mode and Flames are in a “what would the Oilers do? ” mode with regards to inviting ‘tough’ guys to the camp and to the roster.

    Get a center, forget about fights

  • Lowetide

    As far as tough guys go……..I believe that Luke Gazic can be both tough and skilled enough to play 10 minutes a night provided he plays with two guys that can play solid defensively.

    In my opinion both Gordon, Hendricks playing along side Luke can be an effective fourth line. Playing Luke with Lander and Jones = trouble.

    If Dallas Eakins can figure out line combinations ( which he has proved he cannot) we should be good to go!

  • Lowetide

    Looks like we have 3 now with the addition of Kevin Westgarth , who will probably fill that role until Gadzik is healthy . Could eventually have Hendiks centering Westgarth and Gadzik .

  • John Ferguson was 6’0′ and 178 lbs. Tiger Williams was 5’11’ and 190. I know players are bigger now, but neither was that big in their era. They were both hockey players first that could fight.

    The day of the designated enforcer is over. Look at the Kings -Rangers lineups (and pretty well any playoff team) and you won’t see fighters dressed. The prospects team in Penticton was huge. MacT is rightly building this team on “team toughness.”

  • Serious Gord

    The Oilers are slow to pick up on the frequency. Westgarth and Gadzic aren’t needed now.

    There is a significant size difference, and attitude difference on this year’s roster.

    Not fighters per se, but if some Kassian cheap shots a skill player or chirps the team from the bench, this year’s defence corp sports two very much larger and not afraid players, Nikitin and Fayne at least.

    Meaning to say they won’t be chirping those two veterans at their sizes and they’ll be there to provide push back while actually playing. Or perhaps to provide revenge more meaningfully on opponent’s skill.

    Pouliot and Purcell also are big enough established players that won’t be bullied as others were who couldn’t hold a roster spot. In the same way Perron looked like some kind of Messier last year by comparison.

    The Oilers are past that phase now, of being punked. The question is will they be smart enough to ice hockey players and rely on team toughness that they actually are approaching, and what MacT is really remembering from his halcyon days.

    Add to that any graduating player will be of some physical consequence (hat tip to Tchakev) – this has been put to bed by MacT.

    The question is how soon he sees the success of his own work.

  • Serious Gord

    Showing some good play , physical and nastiness in tonights game against the Bears were Ewanyk , Khaira and Nurse . Yakimov showed well again . Still waiting for Draisaitl to dominate , and to show a viable 200 foot game .

  • Serious Gord

    There seem to be two different types of enforcers. There are tough guys who can play hockey and there are hockey players who are tough.

    The first group would appear to consist of names like Ferguson, Laroque, Dave Semenko and Dave Brown. However, the second group, the players who were truly a blend of hockey player and toughness that seem to be what teams should be looking for (Lucic) were a slightly different group.

    Names like Bob Probert, Larry Robinson, Gordie Howe and Wendell Clark are included in this group. These are the gems that every team is looking for and rightly so.

  • Spoils

    The template for this is the kings. Relentless size and skill. Oh, and a true goalie genius.

    I’m not sure there is a team in the last ten years that could handle the Kings for 7.

  • Spoils

    I think it is easier to hide a pugilist on the blue line these days. Most 1-2 defensemen want to play 24-27 mins per game. Number 3-4 closer to 20 per. So you only need 15 mins out of your 5-6. This is where you find some beef that can still turn left. Sean Brown where are you? (Full disclosure – I would rather have good players/rookies as 5-6 defensemen).

  • Zarny

    Great idea. The problem is who in the league can actually do that job?

    If you look at the top 30 PIM leaders (forwards) from last year only 4 players topped 50 PT – Backes, Simmonds, Dubinsky and Hartnell. You could add names like Lucic, Brouwer, Byfuglien, Kesler, Upshall and Kreider although I’m not sure you describe them all as enforcers.

    There is no arguing a guy like Wayne Simmonds is extremely valuable, but there are only a handful of those players in the league.

    Long term, I don’t think it matters. With concussion issues fighting will go the way of the dodo bird. Not to mention enforcers don’t have the ability to protect star players anymore. Best case scenario if someone takes a shot at your star player is your enforcer fights their enforcer. The guy who took liberties won’t be the one answering the bell. Utterly meaningless.

  • Spoils

    Luke freaking Gazdic is a TRAIN WRECK of a hockey player. He is absolutely terrible and ALL of the underlying numbers support that comment. Fun to watch fight? Sure. But he was bottom five all all possession numbers last year. TERRIBLE TERRIBLE hockey player.

  • Zarny

    I’d rather have 2 other Hab players over Ferguson . I prefer Bob Gainey and even L.Robinson whom also had a lot more talent and the types of players you’d love in todays game . They were no slouches in fisticuffs either . Been a while since we had an entertainer like “clear the track ,here comes Shack “. Last couple of games Ewanyk played the Shack role .