Paul Bissonnette took the hard road to the NHL, earning more than 200 games in the majors primarily through his pugilistic abilities. An outspoken and popular presence online, Bissonnette recently responded to a question about the relationship between Luke Gazdic and Connor McDavid, and offered an intriguing defence of the necessity of Edmonton’s enforcer. We can boil that defence down to one name: Antoine Roussel.

The Exchange

Asked whether Gadzic’s public comments that he would have McDavid’s back served to protect the Oilers’ young star or rather served to highlight him as a target, Bissonnette offered the following:
The NHL is such a competitive league and there’s money to be made, so guys are going to compete. I don’t think there are many conflicts that occur in the NHL out of a personal vendetta. The bigger culprit is that when a guy like McDavid has such a high skill level, the other team will try to do whatever it can to get him off of his game. Teams deploy guys like Antoine Roussell, who will do what he can to get under the skin of the other team’s star player. It’s not a personal thing, it’s in his job description. And Gazdic’s job is to keep Roussell in check — essentially serving as a distraction to the distraction. Gazdic’s job, an important one, is to neutralize Roussell so he can’t neutralize McDavid. It’s like really physical chess.
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Bissonnette puts it elegantly, as one might expect, but in a lot of ways this is just the age-old defence of the enforcer: There are rats out there, and it’s helpful to employ a big man with a stick to whack them when they pop up.
How much truth is there in his argument?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Obviously, we don’t know exactly how often McDavid will see Roussel or his ilk, but we can make an educated guess based on who Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has faced. We’ll look at last season, when he was Edmonton’s established first-line centre, and then at 2011-12 when he was a rookie first overall pick just entering the league.
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Bissonnette specifically identified Roussel, but we should expand the sample beyond that one player. We’re looking for Western Conference skaters who are physical and aggressive but also reasonably skilled and who play close to the edge. When I went through last season’s numbers I came up with five players who really fit: Roussel (25 points, 148 PIM), Derek Dorsett (25 points, 175 PIM), Cody McLeod (12 points, 191 PIM), Kyle Clifford (15 points, 87 PIM) and Steve Ott (12 points, 86 PIM). How often did Nugent-Hopkins see these guys and what happened when he did?
Here’s the data, courtesy of Puckalytics.com:
  • Roussel: 11 minutes against, 65% Corsi
  • Dorsett: 8 minutes against, 73% Corsi
  • Ott, Clifford, McLeod: Less than 5 minutes head-to-head
For the most part, Nugent-Hopkins didn’t see these guys, and when he did he ate them alive. He may have taken a hit or two along the way, but no coach is going to trade a hit or two for getting out-shot two- or three-to-one over any length of time. At least, no coach who likes his job will.
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But that’s last year. What if we go back to 2011-12, when Nugent-Hopkins broke into the league?
Our list changes a little with the times; we can keep Dorsett (20 points, 235 PIM), McLeod (11 points, 164 PIM), Ott (39 points, 156 PIM) and Clifford (12 points, 123 PIM) and it makes sense to add Max Lapierre (19 points, 130 PIM), Chris Stewart (30 points, 109 PIM), Cal Clutterbuck (27 points, 103 PIM), Brenden Morrow (26 points, 97 PIM), Jordin Tootoo (30 points, 92 PIM) and Jamal Mayers (15 points, 91 PIM). That’s a longer list – curiously, this player type seems to have been rarer in the West in 2014-15 than in 2011-12 – and should give us a good idea of what rookie Nugent-Hopkins faced from this class of player:
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  • Clutterbuck: 13 minutes against, 58% Corsi
  • Stewart: 13 minutes against, 56% Corsi
  • Ott: 12 minutes against, 50% Corsi
  • Tootoo: 11 minutes against: 59% Corsi
  • Lapierre: 9 minutes against, 57% Corsi
  • Morrow: 9 minutes against, 33% Corsi
  • Dorsett: 6 minutes against, 57% Corsi
  • McLeod: 5 minutes against, 64% Corsi
  • Clifford, Mayers: Less than five minutes head-to-head
For the most part, these guys just don’t play that much against top-line opponents. As a rookie, Nugent-Hopkins saw lots more of guys like Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (all of whom he played 25-plus minutes against in 2011-12).
Of course, those (relatively) rare shifts against physical forwards can be significant, too. Morrow is the one guy in this group in either year who had a level of success against Nugent-Hopkins, but it wasn’t because he was pounding the Edmonton rookie into a pulp; watching those games it looked more like it was because Nugent-Hopkins engaged and gave as good as he got:
That was a rarity, though; for the most part Nugent-Hopkins just settled for roundly outplaying the agitators he faced. His real protection wasn’t that the Oilers had Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager out there distracting the distractions; to borrow a metaphor his real protection was that opposition coaches didn’t feel like trading a pawn (the chance to land a hit on Nugent-Hopkins) for a more valuable piece (actual dominance of the on-ice play).
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That’s going to be McDavid’s defence against the Roussels of the world. It may not hurt that Gazdic’s out there trying to help, and it may not hurt if McDavid stands up for himself the way Nugent-Hopkins did, but at the end of the day his defence is simply that he’s a much better hockey player than most of the league’s agitators and coaches don’t make it to the NHL by routinely seeking matchups in which their players are thoroughly out-classed.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS