Hockey enforcers might become NHL rarity

Updated: August 30, 2005, 12:36 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Reigning NHL penalty-minutes leader Sean Avery has some advice for his colleagues in the he-man, tough-guy club: Get some wheels or take a seat.

"I think now if you can't skate, you can't play. That's what it comes down to," Avery said after an informal workout with some of his Los Angeles Kings teammates and other players on the West Coast.

Inside The Box
Here's a look at fighting majors within the NHL. FT is total number of fighting majors on the season; G is total number of games played on the season; AVG is average number of fighting majors per game for the season; TMS is total number of teams in the league.
Season FT Games Avg. TMS
2003-04 1561 1230 1.27 30
2002-03 1321 1230 1.07 30
2001-02 1583 1230 1.29 30
2000-01 1353 1230 1.10 30
1995-96 1536 1066 1.44 26
1990-91 1521 840 1.81 21
1985-86 1764 840 2.10 21

"Do you need a Georges Laraque on your team? I don't think so," said the lean, 5-foot-10, 185-pound Avery, who topped all NHLers in 2003-04 with 261 penalty minutes. "You're going to have to have guys who can do something other than get on the ice for five or six minutes a night and bear hug guys."

With NHL training camps less than three weeks away, players and managers are in a state of flux over what exactly the new hockey dawn will bring.

Playing under a salary cap for the first time and with the promise of an obstruction crackdown and a more wide-open style of play, many managers have abandoned the old template for team-building. Gone is the so-called "ghost roster" that included at least one forward line devoted to pluggers, muckers and pure fighters and at least two hulking defensemen. Instead, many GMs are focusing on skill, speed and hockey smarts throughout their lineups.

"You're still going to need toughness. But if you can find players with toughness who can play, that's a very, very valuable commodity," said Detroit GM Ken Holland, whose Red Wings have been the model for combining grit and skill with the likes of Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper and Brendan Shanahan.

Given the dramatic redistribution of talent, all but a handful of the league's 30 teams will enter the 2005-06 campaign with a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. Managers are asking themselves whether they can afford to spend even the league minimum of $450,000 on a player whose contributions are limited to five or six minutes a night, a large portion of which will be spent trying to batter an opponent senseless.

"I don't have the luxury of carrying that kind of guy," said Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster, who has had his hands full trying to return the core of his Cup-winning team under the $39 million salary cap.

But if there is hesitation on the part of GMs to completely abandon the notion of intimidation through physical presence, it's because they are wary that the game won't be as open as they've been led to believe and they'll find they're overmatched physically later in the season or in the playoffs.

The assumption by most GMs and coaches is that early on in the season, games will be chock-full of power plays as the new zero-tolerance on obstruction is employed by on-ice officials.

As the weeks and months pass, the plan is that the game still will be called tightly but players will internalize the new rules and the game will open up.

But that has been the theory in the past.

Jody Shelley
John Russell/WireImage.com'Enforcers' like the Jackets' Jody Shelley don't know what to expect this season.

"I think we're just guessing right now," Holland said.

"We'll find out really by Christmas what the trend is," added Boston GM Mike O'Connell, who fears the openness may just lead to a renewed focus on defensive styles. Nonetheless, O'Connell has built a Boston team three lines deep with offensive capability and better-than-average mobility along the blue line.

The rule changes and salary cap aren't the only catalysts to widespread changes in team building. The NHL is notoriously faddish and teams are quick to adopt trends, as witnessed by the move to mimic the trap and the left-wing lock popularized by the Red Wings in the late 1990s. Thus, the Tampa Bay Lightning's run to the 2004 Stanley Cup using a speed-oriented attack has hastened a move away from traditional role players, including the pure fighter.

"Your depth on your hockey club was always role playing, checking players, tough guys. I think if you look at teams' rosters right now, there are three or four teams that have changed the depth on their team," Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said at the recent Canadian Olympic orientation camp in British Columbia. "Their depth is skill now. So they've added skilled depth to the back end of their lineup, which I think is necessary.

"I know our club was really focused on that with the changes we made to our roster," Hitchcock added. "Our depth is more on the skilled side than it was on the role-playing side."

Although he didn't set out to become a trendsetter, Feaster says if the movement toward the Lightning's style of hockey helps to eliminate the "dinosaurs" -- the guys who can only fight or haul down other players -- then so be it.

"You can't just have some 'specialist' that doesn't do anything more," Feaster said.

Feaster can point to his own lineup, which includes forward Chris Dingman, who led the team with a modest 140 penalty minutes, and bruising Nolan Pratt on defense; a lineup that has seen players make significant adjustments to be able to play under coach John Tortorella.

Feaster also points to his offseason signing of veteran forward Rob DiMaio, who is only 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, but can handle himself in tough situations, as a trend in finding players who can fill part of the traditional fighter's role as well as kill penalties and provide some offensive spark.

Hitchcock thinks intelligence, rather than speed, is the sole ingredient at the heart of these systemic changes.

"It's not so much skating but to me hockey sense, transition. I don't think you have to be fast to play this way. But if you're slow thinking, if you're slow thinking defensively, you're going to be in trouble and if you're slow thinking offensively, you're going to be in big trouble. You have to have people whose hockey sense and anticipation is going to have to be good. If you're not able to read turnovers and you're not able to read people behind you, if you have tunnel vision, you're going to have a very difficult time playing with the way the game is now."

Still, for those imagining a hockey Shangri-La with players dropping their gloves only to shake hands at the end of a game, don't hold your breath.

Krzysztof Oliwa rolled up 247 penalty minutes while playing less than five minutes a night in Calgary. Francis Lessard chipped in one goal and 181 penalty minutes while playing 4:28 a night in Atlanta. Andre Roy, formerly with the Lightning, is now in Pittsburgh ostensibly to protect Sidney Crosby.

The fact that players like these still have jobs is an indication teams aren't ready to completely forsake the notion of toughness as a deterrent.

"I would say it's not going away by any stretch," Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean said.

Jody Shelley, the NHL's penalty-minute leader in 2002-03, has been working out with high-performance athletes in Columbus, Ohio, in the hopes of improving his foot speed.

MacLean will look to Shelley to provide a physical presence on the forecheck for a revamped Blue Jackets team that expects to be in the middle of its first playoff run this season.

Said Shelley: "You can't just be one-dimensional. I think that goes pretty much for all the guys in my role. It's definitely something I've been thinking about. What it amounts to -- who knows?"

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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