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What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing: The Myth of Enforcer Culture

When hockey teams use bad players to protect good players, bad things happen.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Los Angeles Kings Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

War, huh.

No, not WAR—Wins Above Replacement—but strategic violence to attain an objective. You know, the thing that so many hockey GMs trade assets to get a player to do, and why so many NHL coaches use those players even when they struggle against NHL competition.

Our own LedgerSko wrote an article not too long ago looking at the enforcer question from a psychological perspective, which is undervalued in the discussion of violence and hockey. He concluded,

[M]aybe adding McLeod was redundant but he’s here now and if his presence makes a guy like Filip Forsberg or Kevin Fiala more comfortable scoring goals, then maybe there is really a role for [an enforcer] on the team.

It could be a thorny ethical question. It actually reminds me of a classic science fiction short story about a utopia that exists only because one child from that otherwise-perfect society is kept imprisoned and tortured. The more we learn about CTE, the messier the question of whether it’s okay to have one player on the team whose job it is to be involved in fights in order to keep everyone else safe becomes.

Or, at least, it would be, if having that one player actually did keep everyone else safe.

The Predators specifically dressed Cody McLeod for a game against the Ducks on December 2nd. It was his first game in nearly two weeks. He had 4:35 on ice, a 25% shot share, zero individual shots, two hits, and one fight. A whole lot of unpleasantness went down during the 60:25 of the game that McLeod wasn’t on the ice, including the moment shown above when Fiala scored a goal and promptly got mugged.

You might say that this was just one game, but there’s been a lot of research—both mathematical and anecdotal—that shows that having an enforcer doesn’t necessarily prevent either injuries or cheap shots.

SkinnyFish at Pension Plan Puppets did some research four years ago, looking at fighting majors taken and violent penalties drawn, and concluded that there isn’t any correlation between how many fights your players get into and how few times the opponents do something nasty to your players. (We make an appearance in that article, and it’s not a great look. Whoops.)

The year after that, Broad Street Hockey/SBNation’s Travis Yost built on that research and rounded up some other work. He concluded that not only does having an enforcer not help your team, it might actually hurt them.

Jonathan Willis has looked at a number of different trends and found that teams that have more fights have more injuries, and also that fighting has a negligible overall impact on momentum—and that even when it does impact momentum, it might help the other team more than it helps yours, because both teams have a player in the fight and want the game to be in their favor.

There’s also a great breakdown from a few years back from Mike Leonard at Stanley Cup of Chowder about how less-than-useless Shawn Thornton was at protecting his teammates in Boston, which goes on to discuss some other serious injuries that occurred against teams that employed enforcers. In a similar vein, Jeff Veillette of has been pointing out times this year when the Leafs’ young stars get cheapshotted when Matt Martin is dressed for the game. (Spoiler: it keeps happening.)

And, to take it back out of the anecdotal, Adam Gretz found that teams were just about as likely to be the victim of a play dirty enough to get supplemental discipline when they dressed an enforcer as when they didn’t.

The Ducks’ various liberties weren’t any more an anomaly than all the other liberties we’ve seen teams take with McLeod in the lineup were.

And why should they be? McLeod is averaging fewer than seven minutes on ice a night—down from just over eight last season—and mostly when he starts a fight it’s because he doesn’t like the color of the other guy’s shirt. Not only is he almost never on the ice to be there when an opponent takes a cheap shot, he’s not likely to do anything about it once he is. And even if he does take some kind of retaliatory action, how often has McLeod gotten into a fight which actually impressed? It’s stale. McLeod fighting is just McLeod fighting, another Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday night.

I rewatched his fights and took a look at his fight cards from over the course of his time with the Preds.

Fight Night at the Bridge

Date Time vs Player Winner (Voted by HF) % of HF voters Notes
Date Time vs Player Winner (Voted by HF) % of HF voters Notes
1/14/17 0:22:18 Iginla Draw 43.8%
1/20/17 0:23:47 Lucic Opponent 92.8% Hendricks elbowed Subban, but McLeod fought Lucic. Sure. Okay.
1/24/17 0:06:00 M. Foligno Opponent 75.9%
2/2/17 0:27:12 Maroon Draw 48.5%
3/4/17 0:06:23 Tootoo McLeod 55.6%
3/7/17 0:03:08 Boll McLeod 35.1%
3/9/17 0:02:02 Clifford Opponent 63.0% Retaliation for a legal hit on Ekholm
3/13/17 0:20:00 Matthias McLeod 95.2%
3/20/17 0:23:09 L. Schenn McLeod 98.6% Retaliation for a late hit on Fisher several minutes prior (!)
3/25/17 0:05:30 Haley Draw 62.5% Later that game Haley would take a match penalty for deliberate attempt to injure.
3/28/17 0:58:35 K. Miller McLeod 62.1%
5/16/17 0:34:07 Boll McLeod 52.7% Retaliation for an uncalled charge on an already-injured Zolnierzcyk
10/5/17 0:10:56 McQuaid McLeod 34.9%
10/7/17 0:42:49 Reaves Opponent 78.6%
10/12/17 0:23:34 Johns McLeod 98.5%
11/4/17 0:06:21 MacDermid Opponent 97.4% Retaliation for a probably-legal hit on Järnkrok
11/20/17 0:02:30 Hendricks McLeod 100.0%
12/2/17 0:11:28 Manson McLeod 77.5%
I went to the fight last night and a spreadsheet broke out.

As you can see, only four of McLeod's eighteen fights in gold have even been in defense of a teammate at all, and for three of those four he was either already on the ice or about to start his next shift. A couple of the others were answering for a hit of his own, but all the rest were just fights for “energy.” Two of those other fights were directly counterproductive—fighting the wrong guy when there was a “right guy” to be fighting instead, or fighting someone who would go on to do exactly the kind of thing the threat of fighting Cody McLeod was supposed to prevent.

There are a few other things to note here, too.

Although the HockeyFights community members seem to feel like McLeod wins a fair number of his fights, when it comes to defending his teammates he’s been just as likely to get beaten up as to do the beating. His recent fight against the KingsKurtis MacDermid is a great example of that. Giving McLeod an instigator for that was basically just adding insult to injury.

Another big thing is that most of his fights are in the first couple of minutes of a period. Overall, the later in the game it is, the less likely McLeod is to be fighting. Part of this is because the later in the game it is the more likely Laviolette is to have shortened his bench. He can’t be fighting if he isn’t taking a shift at all. He won’t be taking a shift during special teams play, or against top competition, or in many high-stakes situations.

Finally, almost all of McLeod’s fights are with his fellow players who are on the roster to add grit, stability, and veteran experience. Those aren’t the only players who take cheap, dangerous shots, but they’re often the only ones who have to answer for them, on or off the ice.

This is where nostalgia kicks in and lies to us.

We accepted that Shea Weber’s presence deterred people from messing with anyone who shouldn’t be messed with. So when Weber was traded, it might have seemed logical to replace one great defenseman who is also a physical player with one great defenseman and one, separate, physical player. But Weber got those special-teams minutes, the top-competition matchups, twenty-six minutes on ice a night. He played a ludicrous ninety percent or so of his icetime with Roman Josi, whose concussion last January was the immediate cause of Poile’s decision to acquire McLeod.

And Weber feeling the need to actually fight someone was very, very rare. In McLeod’s first two half-seasons with the Predators he’s had eighteen fights. In Weber’s last two full seasons with the Predators he had just three—two of them were immediate reactions to being repeatedly cross-checked around the head and could probably be filed under “self-defense,” while the third was making Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog answer for a hit on Josi.

McLeod probably couldn’t have taken that fight, and he certainly couldn’t have fought Sidney Crosby this past June for smacking P.K. Subban’s head repeatedly into the ice. (I don’t think anyone should be fighting Crosby, but the NHL has yet to ask me how I feel about head contact.) Look at what happened last week, when Pete DeBoer was outraged that Tom Wilson had fought future Hall-of-Famer Joe Thornton after he injured a teammate.

Even just in the fights a fourth-line grinder is allowed to take, McLeod doesn’t have Weber’s long-term connection to the team and the extra sense of responsibility for his teammates that seems to settle on the captain. He also lacks Weber’s sheer intimidation factor. Part of that might be their relative sizes, part of it might be their fighting styles, and part of it might just be that everyone expects Cody McLeod to punch someone at some point anyway.

They are not the same player. They will not have the same effects. And since McLeod can’t provide that same sense of security we associate with Weber, why play him?

Seven minutes on ice—the amount of time Laviolette trusts McLeod with—might not seem like a lot. But an awful lot can happen in seven minutes. The Predators’ stunning third-period collapse against the Minnesota Wild a few weeks ago took less than that, from Ryan Suter’s goal with just 6:56 left in regulation to cut the good guys’ lead back to one to Jason Zucker’s gamewinner only 4:01 later. That was one of four times so far this season they’ve given up three goals in less than five minutes.

Every shift matters. McLeod has had a good past few games by his standards. He scored a goal against the Stars last Tuesday, his second point of the season. More than just that, he’s been able to spend some time in the offensive zone despite not getting starts there. But he’s had good stretches by his standards in the past, and they’ve never lasted more than a few games. He’s also 33, which means that the odds that he’s due for a Viktor Arvidsson-style breakthrough season aren’t good.

The Predators are lucky enough right now to have some solid bottom-six wingers. When Scott Hartnell and—indirectly—Ryan Johansen return, the depth on wing will get even better. It’s even trickier because Pontus Åberg looks like he might finally be getting his feet under him. Who sits for McLeod? Åberg? Frédérick Gaudreau? Miikka Salomäki? Austin Watson? Having two of those forwards not playing so Johansen and Hartnell can is the good kind of problem to have. Having three of those forwards not playing so Johansen, Hartnell, and McLeod can is not quite the same.

I respect the idea of wanting to protect the skill players, but there’s no indication that enforcers in general or McLeod in particular can actually deliver on that promise. Given that, giving him games over better hockey players is not a good solution.