Friday, October 01, 2010

The Endless Cycle of Enforcement

I don't understand why Darcy Hordichuk's place in the #Canucks lineup is even in question. Who else is going to show up to do what he does?
~ @rcamcole

Who is going to do what Darcy Hordichuk does?

The first question to ask is what does Darcy Hordichuk do?

As I established in a post back in June, I like fighting in hockey. I firmly believe that fighting is necessary as a deterrent for cheap shots, to protect star players, and to pump up teammates and fans, but beyond all the logical and reasonable arguments for fighting, I simply enjoy it. Call it barbarism, but I enjoy seeing a good, old-fashioned hockey fight.

What I don't enjoy seeing is a player with limited ability costing my team points in the standings. I get annoyed when I see a player consistently get beaten in the defensive zone, mishandle a pass, or take a stupid penalty. As soon as such a player hits the ice, the fans collectively hold their breath, just waiting for him to make a mistake and hoping that he gets off the ice as soon as possible. The question arises: how does a person who so clearly cannot play professional hockey at the NHL level get a job playing professional hockey at the NHL level? Because this particular specimen is an "enforcer" and is paid not to play hockey, but to punch people on skates.

When Darcy Hordichuk was signed by the Canucks in 2008, I was initially pleased, as were a great many other Canucks fans. By all reports, Darcy Hordichuk is a wonderful person and a great teammate. Furthermore, the team had been without a legitimate heavyweight fighter for years, with Jeff Cowan attempting to fill that role in the previous season. Hordichuk was seen as a guy who could skate a regular shift on the 4th line, a reliable checker who could, at the very least, skate. Turns out, that wasn't exactly true. He has not been reliable; instead, he's been a liability. Sure, he'll throw a few hits, but they're hardly impactful. Otherwise, he doesn't do much of anything other than occasionally fight.

Which means, his only purpose is to fight. And the only people he fights are other enforcers. Which means his fights don't do what a hockey fight is meant to do.

An enforcer like Hordichuk doesn't fight an opposing team's cheap-shot artists. If Matt Cooke, for example, elbows an opponent or catches a player with his head down, he may be challenged to a fight, but no one expects him to fight a heavyweight like Derek Boogaard, Darcy Hordichuk, or George Parros. It would be considered ludicrous, akin to Zdeno Chara flipping Bryan McCabe around like a matador's cape. A player like Evander Kane, on the other hand, can take on Matt Cooke, because it's reasonable for him to do so. Evander Kane can play hockey and he can fight a cheap-shot artist.

An enforcer like Hordichuk doesn't protect a team's star players. Quite frankly, if Hordichuk is on the ice at the same time as the Sedins, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. If someone does target the Sedins, Hordichuk may come off the bench the following shift, but he's not going to fight the offending player. Instead, he's going to fight the other team's designated fighter. That fighter isn't going to be the player who originally targeted the Sedins, because he can't play hockey either and if he was on the ice at the same time as the Sedins, they just scored a goal.

The only possible purpose, then, of the heavyweight enforcer is to pump up his teammates and the crowd. As I mentioned, I enjoy watching a hockey fight, but I get much more pumped-up watching the speedy fists of Rick Rypien or even the mullet-ness and willingness to take a punch of Tanner "No Third Line For" Glass than the flailing ineptitude of Darcy Hordichuk. Obviously I can't speak for his teammates, but I certainly don't get pumped up watching Darcy Hordichuk fight because I know it plays no role in the outcome of the game. Two team-appointed fighters squaring off holds no appeal to me because they are only members of their respective teams in the most technical of terms.

In many ways, the world of hockey enforcement is akin to the academic world of philosophy; it's insular and frequently serves no purpose to the world at large. In philosophy, it's just philosophers disagreeing with each other completely aside from the issues that actually matter to regular people and in hockey, it's heavyweights fighting with each other completely aside from the hockey that actually decides the result of a game. Darcy Hordichuk only slots into the lineup if there is a player on the opposing team that "needs" to be fought. If the opposing team has no such player, he sits in the press-box, pondering his knuckles. So what would happen if no other team in the NHL had such a player?

What would happen if every team in the NHL broke the cycle of enforcement and cut ties with their players who do nothing but chuck knuckles within the fraternity of fighters?

George Parros might need to actually use his degree from Princeton. Derek Boogaard would have to go back to teaching teenagers how to fight. Darcy Hordichuk could return to his modelling career. Raitis Ivanans would go back to whatever it is that Raitis Ivanans does. And the NHL would drastically cut down on the number of pointless fights.

Enforcers who can play?

Guy Boucher, the new coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning who is about as far-removed from old-school hockey thinking as is humanly possible, summed up his thoughts on enforcers in a recent article by Damian Cristodero:

The reality is you need an enforcer, in my book, if he can play the game. If he can’t play the game it just makes somebody unhappy not playing much. It also prevents some other guys who could bring a lot of stuff on the ice. I’m all for enforcers if they can hog a lot of minutes during the game, use them for penalty kill or against top lines. I don’t like guys sitting on the bench. I use everybody. I use all my four lines. I use all my defense. Everybody has got a role on the team. And when a guy has only that role I don't feel comfortable about it.

The role of the heavyweight enforcer who can't play hockey is, or perhaps should be, dead. It seems strange to say that when Derek Boogaard, the quintessential representative of this fraternity, can get signed by Glen Sather for $6.5 million over 4 years, but that's what happens when an NHL team employs a man married to the old-school vision of hockey. There's a reason the signing was scoffed at: Boogaard has scored a whopping 2 goals over his entire 5-year career. That's not the kind of production that normally nets a multi-year, big-money deal. Of course, Boogaard was not signed to play hockey, he was signed to fight.

But the Boogeyman has only fought 9 times in each of his last two seasons. In all 82 games the Wild played last season, Boogaard fought in 9 of them. He averaged the fewest minutes of any player on the Wild (other than 2-game wunderkind Danny Irmen) with 6:09 and only played in 57 games. That's pretty much the definition of a non-impact player. Boogaard will be paid $1.625 million a year to fight 9 times a year. That's it. He doesn't contribute anything else on the ice. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say he fights 10 times a year. That's still a whopping $162,500 per fight.

Still, Boogaard is regarded as one of the premier fighters in the NHL, a bona fide heavyweight enforcer. So why doesn't he fight more often? Because the only people willing to fight him are other bona fide heavyweight enforcers (and Darcy Hordichuk). No one else is willing to fight him because they know he could cave in their faces (literally) with one swing of his Thanksgiving-turkey-sized fists.

Sounds like a pretty intimidating guy, and he is, but he's not intimidating as a hockey player. He is only intimating as a fighter and if another player doesn't want to fight him, he doesn't have to. And, since he barely sees the ice during a game, he's not much of a threat to a team's star players, so there's no need for the opposition to ice their own enforcer to protect those players.

Boogaard is not an enforcer who can play and neither is Hordichuk. Unfortunately, it's entirely possible that Hordichuk will make the Canucks' opening night roster purely on the basis that he can fight the heavyweight goons and the assumption that it's necessary for him to do so. Why do the Canucks need Darcy Hordichuk? To fight Derek Boogaard, George Parros, and Brian McGrattan. Why do the Rangers need Derek Boogaard? To fight George Parros, Brian McGrattan, and Darcy Hordichuk. And so the cycle goes.

The Kurtenblog asked the question, "Do the Canucks need an enforcer?" It seems clear to me that the answer is no, that no team actually needs an enforcer cut from the Hordichuk/Boogaard/Parros cloth. An enforcer that can play, that contributes on the ice when he is not fighting? That is a player worth having. There is no point to having an enforcer who's only job is to fight the opposing team's enforcer. If this is all that he does, what is actually being enforced?

Who is going to do what Hordichuk does? Hopefully no one, because what Hordichuk does is not worth doing.

12 comments:

  1. as happens a lot with stuff i read on this blog i agree with this. really saddened that oreskovich didn't show an ability or willingness to be a deterrent and thus make hordichuk expendable. i don't think he should become an enforcer because he has potential to be better than that but he needs some policeman in his game regardless or he'll just be bernier2.

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  2. This is a great post, and I feel much the same way these days.

    Years ago, I would have had you burned at the stake :), but the game has changed, and so has our knowledge of it.

    There were always tough guys who could play the game well (Ferguson), but it wasn't until the 70s where designated goons started popping up on most teams. It just seems silly, really, to have a roster spot dedicated to someone whose role isn't actually to PLAY hockey, but just to box and wrestle.

    That doesn't mean that Odjick still doesn't have a place in my heart, but if I were running a team, I'd never have someone like that on my squad.

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  3. @bitterguy

    Have to agree with you about Oreskovich. While I still would like to seem him in the lineup because of his rare combination of size and speed, he didn't make much of an argument for himself in the pre-season, as either a player or a fighter.


    @Jes Gőlbez

    Odjick definitely has a place in my heart, for sure. I wouldn't include with the likes of Boogaard, Ivanans, and Hordichuk as an enforcer who couldn't play the game. Keep in mind, Odjick had enough hockey sense and skill that he was able to play on the top line with Pavel Bure. In that sense, he could be an actual enforcer and protect Bure because he could be on the ice at the same time as him.

    Odjick had 137 points in his NHL career, a far cry from the guys mentioned in my post. He even managed a 16 goal season in 93-94, and he posted double digit point totals 5 times. For a guy primarily known for his pugilistic ability, those are pretty good numbers. I mean, he wasn't Bob Probert or Wendel Clark, but he also wasn't a schlub.

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  4. unfortunately there's also members of the Canucks organization that would keep players on the roster simply because they draw viewers. A good hockey fight will always pump people up. I think most Canucks fans will tell you they prefer Rypien over Hordichuk but that 4th line last year obviously fit the bill of toughness over skill.

    another good post but where's my "i watched this game you bastards!"

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  5. Does Darcy Hordichuk really draw viewers, though? His fights aren't that entertaining to me.

    Harrison said he'd post the "I Watched This Game" sometime today. Both of us were busy last night and couldn't watch the game live, but he's got it recorded.

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  6. i'd be scared of Boogaard's slapper like Neuvirth, if he can laser it like that everytime..

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  8. unfortunately there's also members of the Canucks organization that would keep players on the roster simply because they draw viewers. A good hockey fight will always pump people up. I think most Canucks fans will tell you they prefer Rypien over Hordichuk but that 4th line last year obviously fit the bill of toughness over skill.

    another good post but where's my "i watched this game you bastards!"

    ReplyDelete

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