Ever since ESPN.com first offered fantasy hockey in the 1990s, I've had qualms about having penalty minutes as a category in the game.
I know I'm not the only one who felt it was unnecessary to include a statistic that, more often than not, hurt a player's real team instead of helping it. But with no other way to value "toughness," I brushed it off and squeezed the most I could out of Donald Brashear and Georges Laraque for many years.
Things have changed this season. Thankfully, ESPN now offers league managers the option of adding statistical categories such as hits and blocked shots in custom leagues. Although the NHL has had problems tracking these stats accurately in the past, at least fantasy owners now have more ways to put a value on grit and hopefully put together a roster that more closely resembled NHL teams and not All-Star teams.
As such, 29 percent of all drafted ESPN leagues are now custom (and 79 percent of those are using custom scoring options), and it makes perfect sense. If you were forming a real team, wouldn't it be better to have big hitters such as Brooks Orpik, Milan Lucic and Dustin Brown, as opposed to penalty-minute (PIM) leaders such as Brandon Prust (61), Sean Avery (58) and Derek Dorsett (56)?
"That's just the way I play and the way I'm going to keep playing," Lucic told the Boston Herald recently. "I feel like when I am physical I am creating space for my line."
With an assist to his glass-breaking hit (which can be seen on YouTube), Lucic's cult status continues to grow, along with his popularity in Boston, because he's a throwback to the glory days of the "big, bad Bruins." Saturday night against Buffalo, Lucic had as many hits (eight) as all the Sabres' forwards.
"I just went out there and finished my checks, and tried to create some energy, give the fans a thrill," Lucic told the Herald. "It's great to see the building full like that. You want to get them into the game and cheering, and [there's] no better way than a couple of hits."
Lucic has had just one assist, 20 PIMs and is a plus-2 in the past seven games since his career night of three goals and an assist on Oct. 25. His recent numbers have hurt his value in standard leagues, but his value on the ice has kept the 6-foot-3, 228-pound forward skating on Boston's top line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel.
"It's what Lucic does for your team and what he creates on the opposing team," Bruins coach Claude Julien told the Herald. "If you are in a foot race with Looch, half a step ahead of him is the worst place you can be. You want to have three or four steps on him or let him go."
Brown, last season's league leader in hits (311), is again leaving a trail of bodies along the ice. But the Kings captain is also counted on to produce offensively as a top-line forward. Brown had 33 goals last season and has six goals, five assists and a plus-1 ranking through 14 games.
"A lot of your physical guys aren't good players and never get on the ice," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told the Los Angeles Times about Brown. "This is a guy who plays 22 minutes against your best guys. You've got to keep your head up because he's always on the hunt."
Brown is giving Lucic some YouTube competition after one of his hits sent Stephane Robidas into the Kings' bench during Tuesday's 3-2 shootout victory over Dallas. Traditional-league owners benefited as well after Brown ended up with 20 PIMs, including a game misconduct, because a hit on Mike Ribeiro while he was following through on a shot sent the Stars center into the boards, prompting Brenden Morrow to square off with Brown.
"He's spinning around. I'm going to finish that hit. It's unfortunate that he went into the boards. He was spinning as I was hitting him," Brown, who also netted a goal for the third consecutive game, told the Times. "He was trying to make a play on that. I'm finishing my check. If that's five more feet in the neutral zone, he's knocked down and we're going to overtime."
The incident sets the stage for what should be a heated rematch Thursday night in Dallas. The Stars will definitely be watching for Brown, as should fantasy hockey owners.
Thursday night's Maple Leafs-Oilers game will be interesting to watch. We'll have to see how Toronto forward Jason Blake responds on the ice after his second healthy scratch of the season two nights earlier in Calgary.
Blake has already responded plenty in the media but has not yet requested a trade, according to the Toronto Sun.
"It's just extremely frustrating," Blake told the Sun. "I'm even more caught off guard this time, and I don't know what's going on."
Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson told reporters he kept Blake out Tuesday night because he wanted a more physical lineup against the rugged Flames. Enter tough guy Ryan Hollweg in Blake's place.
The Sun reported that Blake responded to his earlier benching by going harder to the net but had recently fallen back into old habits of playing on the periphery and taking low-percentage shots from bad angles.
"Maybe it's not going to work out for me in Toronto," Blake told the Sun. "It hasn't through the first 16 games … I'm not going to quit."
This, of course, has been an unwelcome occurrence to Leafs fans and Blake owners who expected more than the 15 goals and 37 assists Blake posted last season and the two goals in 14 games he has given them so far in the second year of a five-year, $20 million contract. A demotion to the AHL remains a possibility.
"I'm glad he's upset," Wilson told the Sun. "You don't want a guy to roll over and die. I want a guy who steps on the ice and plays with piss and vinegar, which he has not done consistently. I haven't seen that out of him this year or last year when I reviewed the tapes. He knows that deep down.
"If he gets fired up and plays the way we know he can play, and is a valuable member of the team, that's great. That other stuff is bluster, like barking back. [He must go] harder to the net, making people around him better."
Sit and stew
Flyers coach John Stevens is sending a message to a number of his players he believes aren't playing hard enough.
"Maybe it's a good thing," captain Mike Richards told The Associated Press. "You play well, you're going to play, and if you don't play well, you're not going to play. Maybe it pushes you more."
Hartnell had a season-low 11:19 of ice time Tuesday, and Stevens told the Philadelphia Daily News that it "didn't look like [Hartnell] wanted to play tonight."
With center Daniel Briere now out because of another lower-body injury, the Flyers need all their top forwards to step up. Hartnell told the Daily News he saw the benching coming but knows he must come out with a better effort.
Avalanche center Tyler Arnason was back in the lineup Wednesday after being a healthy scratch Saturday, but the underachiever was barely noticeable in Colorado's 2-1 shootout victory over the Canucks. Arnason managed two shots on goal, but the lack of jump and passion from him has to frustrate the Avalanche and coach Tony Granato. We'll just have to see how this one plays out.
Thrashers net changes
Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen isn't expected to play in the next two games (Friday against Carolina and Sunday at Philadelphia), according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lehtonen, who hasn't played since Oct. 30, reinjured his back, forcing Atlanta to recall Ondrej Pavelec, 21, from Chicago of the AHL. Pavelec is 2-0 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .889 save percentage in three appearances.
Wild shuffle lines
Players returning from injury and decreased production from the once-hot trio of Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu have led Wild coach Jacques Lemaire to juggle his lines for Thursday's game against the Coyotes.
Defenseman Brent Burns is set to return after missing four games because of an upper-body injury, and he'll skate as a forward (with Brunette and Eric Belanger) to get more footwork, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"It's going to help because he's getting four, five shots a game," Lemaire told the Star Tribune about Burns. "He makes plays and, you know, he's capable of [passing] to different guys that will get good chances. So that's going to help."
Miettinen, it appears, will play with center James Sheppard and wing Stephane Veilleux, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In fact, the Pioneer Press asked Lemaire if the Miettinen-Koivu-Brunette line is being broken up because it's attracting too much attention or because the chemistry is dying and he responded with "Both."
Meanwhile, Owen Nolan, who has not played since Oct. 29, returned to practice Tuesday and might be back Thursday.
Sharks injury watch
Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo might be back Thursday against the Flames, but goalie Evgeni Nabokov is not yet ready to return to action, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Cheechoo, who has an upper-body injury, and Nabokov were hurt Nov. 6 against St. Louis.
Jim Wilkie is a former NHL editor/writer for ESPN.com. You can email him at email@example.com.