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