By Sam Page
If you’re considering entering the NHL’s great fighting debate, save your breath for the eulogy -- fighting’s already dying.
While head injury concerns fail to compel the powers that be, advanced player evaluation tools and a renewed emphasis on puck possession have already begun quietly eradicating hockey’s violent game within the game.
First, it’s worth delineating between fighting writ large and the rehearsed fighting that hockey fans find grievous in light of George Parros’ recent concussion. Most fans, I suspect, support fighting as the expression of a genuine and building frustration toward a rival team, or as a means of karmic retribution on the NHL’s worst pests.
MUIR: Parros incident reignites debate
But it’s the staged kind of fighting that Parros and the rest of the league's supergoons practice -- in which two mostly emotionless or sometimes even chummy behemoths add a fresh layer of scar tissue to each other’s heads out of ritual observance -- that seems so outmoded.
GALLERY: Notorious enforcers and goons
When people talk about banning fighting, they usually mean outlawing these put-on scraps through some creative rule change. Or they mean banning all fighting, but only so far as losing the “bad” fighting justifies also losing the uncontroversial kind. They figure that serious health concerns outweigh the “code” of on-ice policing, which has proven an ineffective deterrent for illegal hits, at best.
Granted, there are degrees, here. Moving down today’s goon spectrum is like studying the evolution of man chart, there’s George Parros, followed by Colton Orr, Jordin Tootoo, Rich Clune, Steve Ott, etc. -- each more of a hockey player and less of boxer-on-skates than the last.
It’s clear, however, which players would and wouldn’t survive a punching ban. And as sports’ statistical revolution inevitably reaches hockey, precision will illuminate exactly how big the gulf in talent between the goon and the average fourth-liner is.
That’s why fighting, the ugly sideshow, is dying. Fighters have to be able to play the game.
How much exactly does an enforcer cost a team with his fumbling play? Derek Zona calculated that in 2010 the average goon took his team down one whole win in the standings, which seems like a small number until you look at the standings.
Zona's calculation holds up today. Hockey Prospectus records a statistic called GVT (Goals Versus Threshold) that attempts to measure, essentially, Wins Above Replacement (to borrow a sabermetric concept). Just doing some quick back-of-the-napkin math -- using last year’s results and knowing that the average forward GVT was about 3.5, and about three goals are worth a team point in the standings -- we reach a similarly grim conclusion:
The fighter’s cost to his team can’t just be measured in his value below an average player, either. GVT mostly ignores context, and coaches go to great lengths to hide these guys, limiting the chances they will commit a costly mistake by giving them disproportionate time in the offensive zone -- everyone can skate on tilted ice, after all.
To borrow one popular example, tough guys Orr and Frazer McLaren were the only two players on the Maple Leafs last season to eclipse 50 percent O-Zone starts (the percentage of shifts that a player starts in the offensive versus the defensive zone). Even at about six minutes of ice time per game, those wasted offensive zone opportunities add up.
I’m not blowing the lid off any state secrets here. Everyone knows that supergoons can’t play, but GMs tolerate their presence on rosters because they think they can get away with it. The trick is that they were never really getting away with it.
MURPHY: Hard times for goons in the endangered zone (SI/11/07/11)
The old logic held that having a human weapon served as a useful deterrent, even if it cost a team a little production on the margins. Now an increasing number of NHL fans and teams realize that deterrence doesn’t work when goons only fight other goons. Roster spots are too precious.
This realization does not require the evangelical acceptance of the Corsi number into a wayward GM’s heart. Unlike the hasty scouts-versus-stats battle lines drawn in baseball after the publication of Moneyball, the diminishing role of the goon is the result of a larger, creeping logic about what wins hockey games, buoyed by the spread of statistics.
But some hockey executives, like fighting opponent Steve Yzerman, the Lightning's GM, don’t necessarily need stats to know what’s worked for certain teams for years.
Just as former Orioles manager Earl Weaver intuited the strategies that Billy Beane would champion as the A's GM 30 years later, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock (Yzerman's old boss) has long used the strategy now prescribed by the "fancy stats": hold onto the puck and take lots of shots. Babcock's Detroit teams have never wasted roster space on a supergoon, and yet they have competed for Stanley Cups while keeping all their stars alive. Go figure.
Other coaches that seem to "get it" in the eyes of hockey's sabermetricians, such as the Rangers' Alain Vigneault -- known for his progressive use of "zone matching" -- have reached similar conclusions.
Meanwhile, maybe it’s no coincidence that such stalwarts such as Barry Trotz and Lindy Ruff are not dressing an enforcer at the same time that they have both started espousing the importance of puck possession -- the battle cry of the numbers crowd. The Predators' Rich Clune and the Stars' Antoine Roussel can hold their own in a fight, but they can also play. (It's also probably not a coincidence that the GMs in Dallas and Tampa Bay are both Red Wings alumni -- Yzerman and Jim Nill.)
The fighting ban probably won’t happen. But winning is the bottom line.
Eventually, hockey will naturally achieve the perfect equilibrium: fighting between real players, only as dictated by genuine emotion, absent the presence of hulking specialists. In the meantime, those front office types that staunchly defend fighting’s role will only create inefficiencies for their rivals to exploit.
Not everybody is going to be receptive to Yzerman’s call for a fighting ban at the upcoming GM meetings, but the joke will be on them. The Lightning fill their toughness quotient with a player, winger B.J. Crombeen, that Yzerman can actually trust in defensive situations (30.8 percent O-Zone starts last season).
If an increasing number of fighter-less teams start defeating those that dress an enforcer -- both because of the inherent handicap of carrying a tough guy on the roster, and because the former teams have a better player evaluation model in the first place -- only two groups will be left to defend the barbarians: the players, honor bound to their friends and union, and the pundits and executives who cling to the vagaries of toughness as the last defense against original thought.
The players’ reluctance will take care of itself. And if baseball’s any model, the rest will be dragged kicking and screaming into the current millennium.