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Does Montreal Need An "Enforcer"?

Do the Habs need a fighter to have playoff success?

Before I went on vacation this summer I was linked to this story on Bleacher Report. I had planned to write about it earlier but when preparing for a wedding, time runs away on you. I think most who know me know my stance on this subject, and I believe as far as the contributors on this blog go, we're all in agreement here. However this article took the care to break down several reasons why the Montreal Canadiens need and "enforcer", so since it's the summer and everyone is looking for a new hockey article to read, a full on debunking of this idea is in order.

Before I go into the main article, I think it's important to look at the word enforcer. Where does this title for fighters come from? Just what are they enforcing. When the Habs employed Georges Laraque he had some convoluted, unreasonable "code" that he claimed everyone followed, but seemed to be alone in that regard. Are they enforcing the rules? Clearly not since fighting in itself is against the rules and hence; is a penalty, a major one at that. There's mythical notion that enforcers protect star players, but unless the supposed enforcer is capable of playing with those star players every game, how can he protect them? If the fighter leaves the bench on the play, he gets an automatic 10 game suspension from the NHL.

Either enforcer is a term for a fighter from a bygone era, or it refers to a player who can play top line minutes and fights once in awhile to stick up for teammates. The term certainly does not apply to modern day fighters in the NHL who play barely 5 minutes a game and fight all the time. Now to get to the 6 "reasons" Montreal needs a fighter, according to Jason Sapunka:

1. Francis Lessard shoved Tom Pyatt into the boards

Sapunka begins with an "honourable mention", but we'll just say he listed 6 reasons. As he notes in the article, Francis Lessard received a major penalty and game misconduct. What he failed to mention however, was that while Pyatt was winded on the play, he wasn't hurt. Pyatt played his shifts the rest of that game, and had his best statistical game of the entire year 2 days later. Unfortunately Montreal did not score on the ensuing powerplay, but that's how it goes in the NHL sometimes. This isn't enough for the author however:

"The problem with letting the rulebook do a team's fighting is that it doesn't stop the players from being hurt, and it doesn't prevent players from doing this again in the future."

Wait a second, the powerplay doesn't stop a player from being hurt? You don't say. Pyatt wasn't hurt though. There's also the major problem with this statement, fighting would also not stop a player from being hurt. If in fact Pyatt was hurt on the play, and for argument's sake Travis Moen or Ryan White went in and fought Lessard, the result would be a fighting major, and that's it. Does anyone in their right mind think a player like Francis Lessard, a talentless 32 year old AHL goon with 68 AHL points in 523 games to go along with 2544 PIM would be fearful of a fight, ANY fight? No. The man makes his living fighting. Is he going to not lay a dirty hit because someone just like himself will come after him? If that's the way he operated, his professional hockey career would be over already.

2. Milan Lucic Hammered Jaroslav Spacek

Yes, Milan Lucic his Spacek from behind. Yes, it was a dirty hit (good luck getting any Bruins fan to admit it though). Lucic is indeed an intimidating figure as far as physicality is concerned, especially with that hunchback thing he has going on, he literally looks like a cartoon villain. However Milan Lucic is also a hell of a hockey player, and he isn't the toughest player in the NHL in spite of his fearsome reputation. In fact he loses a fair portion of his fights whenever he fights someone in his own weight class. Even in the fight that really gave Lucic his gold star as a fighter, he only started to win the fight after his opponent threw a punch that separated his own shoulder (I'm looking at you Mr. Komisarek). So why is he such an effective NHL player? Because he doesn't back down. Having a fighter on your team isn't going to make Lucic run away with his tail between his legs. If you have a pure fighter with no talent to play the game, like for instance Georges Laraque, he'll just ignore him and score a goal, like he did on November 22nd, 2008. We're starting to see the author's inherent lack of understanding of the game right away here, and this quote really proves it:

In their second-to-last game of the season, the Canadiens continued a trend of being pushed around they had followed all year long.

Did they now Mr. Sapunka? You can see in the replay that at the time Lucic hit Spacek, Montreal was tied with Boston 1-1 and facing elimination. The got pushed around SO bad in that game, that they won and forced a 7th game.

3. Darroll Powe was a one-man wrecking crew

Powe laid two questionable to dirty hits in the game the author references. Neither player who was hit missed significant time. Halpern left the game as a precaution but played two nights later. This time a Canadiens player attempted to step up to "enforce"... something, and Maxim Lapierre got his arse handed two him in an embarrassing fight with a guy nearly 4 inches shorter than him. So someone stepped up and tried right, shouldn't the author be ok with that? Nope.

In one of the few responses Montreal actually attempted, they were further embarrassed by a poor fight effort.

Okay, so now if someone is going to attempt retribution for a dirty hit, they can't lose. So it's gone from a need for any old fighter to drop the mitts and just try, to a fighter who never loses. This sounds pretty tough to find. How much of an impact did Powe have on the game though? Did he intimidate the Canadiens so badly that they folded and just let the Flyers pound them into oblivion? No, they won that game 3-0. In spite of this bellyaching, the "tough" team never got a sniff of victory.

4. The Bruins destroyed them in a line brawl

Of course, here comes the most over-hyped game of the decade, the so-called "Beantown beatdown". lists 6 fights during the 8-6 mess on February 9th, 2011. Travis Moen, Benoit Pouliot and Carey Price are all listed as winners of their fights, while Shawn Thornton, Johnny Boychuk and Gregory Campbell are listed as the winners of theirs. That puts the fight tally at a 3-3 tie. Let's look deeper.

All three of the fights Boston won, were at 19:11 of the 3rd period. 49 seconds left in the game, it's been decided already as Boston is leading 8-5, and that's the first time a Boston player wins a fight in this game. Perhaps it's because it's one of the last things that happened, but it seems many Habs fans only remember Tom Pyatt being beaten with a plastic elbow pad, and not the rest of the hockey game. The last 40 minutes of the hockey game were actually played completely even, with Montreal holding a 27 to 16 shot advantage and each team scoring 6 goals.

The reality of the 8-6 game is that it was won in the first period as the Canadiens came out completely flat, and the Gomez line had its worst game of the season. Boston was up 2-0 before there was a hint of gooning around. The writer continues to chisel away at his already thin credibility with this gem:

Even though some of Montreal's players were saved by the referees (in addition to some mercy from the Bruins who were pounding away at them), there were multiple beatings this night, and not one Canadien has made the Bruins pay since.

Yes Jason, there were multiple beatings. Three for each team in fact. Although you obviously didn't watch the video if you think any Bruins were "merciful" in their actions. In all 3 fights that the Bruins won, they continues to hit the Canadiens players when they were down. When Montreal players won their fights, they stopped throwing punches. It's this little thing called class. But the pièce de résistance of the ridiculousness that is this statement is "and not one Canadien has made the Bruins pay since". Not one? Not a single one? So I guess this never happened in the next game between the two teams then, eh? Because no Bruin has ever payed since. Try to ignore the retardation of NESN commentary as Ryan White reconfigures Boychuk's face after an attempted knee on Subban.

Johnny Boychuk vs Ryan White Mar 8, 2011 (via hockeyfightsdotcom)

5. Zdeno Chara almost broke the neck of Max Pacioretty

Umm... He DID break his neck. You posted this article on May 24th, Mr. Sapunka, did you not read any hockey news for two and a half months? Or are you a proponent of Dr. Recchi's diagnosis? Most of your point seems to be "Chara did it on purpose", but let's ignore that as it's been discussed ad nauseum for almost 6 months now. Your main point seems to be this:

"This act of revenge taken by Zdeno Chara was just another incident which proved that anyone [*] could push around the Montreal Canadiens without ever having to pay a price for it."

*emphasis is mine

Anyone? Anyone? It's Zdeno Chara! He's 6'9" and 260lbs! The biggest, strongest player to ever play in the NHL. What player exactly is going to intimidate Chara? Who's going to stop him from making that hit? Be reasonable for a fraction of a second. Chara could have made that hit on any player against any team, and there's not a damn thing anyone could do about it. The league had a chance to punish the hit and chose to call a clear penalty (a penalty by definition by the way, is not a hockey play, that's why it's penalized) a hockey play and move on. There is no one in the NHL or any other hockey league who's going to intimidate Chara.

6. There's no excuse not to

Well for starters, this isn't a reason to employ a fighter. Just because something is available doesn't mean you should acquire it. Secondly, there is an excuse not to, it's called fielding a competitive team. None of the players listed in this section of the article are capable NHL players. They're 5 minutes or less per game guys who always drag their team down with stupid penalties and poor play on the ice. Sure you can dig up empty platitudes about how teammates always adore the fighters on their team, that's because they're usually good guys in the room, not because they have any effect on the ice. The only real effect they have on the ice is a negative one.

If fighters had any value, even at the job they DO perform, then they would be the ones fighting when the game matters, but when the numbers are crunched, the opposite was found to be true.

Over at Copper and Blue, the always excellent Derek Zona broke it down to down to a science to find that a goon costs a team at least one loss per season.

Maple Leafs blogger 67sound broke down a statistical analysis on whether goons and fighting help teams win games as well.

And here's an excellent discussion of the subject by some of the most respected hockey writers out there.

Fighters don't win hockey games, they don't swing momentum, they don't stop injuries from happening (ask Marc Savard or Nathan Horton), and they don't enforce a code that doesn't exist. They are a side show that can be entertaining. We went through this neurotic need from a select portion of the fanbase before Bob Gainey acquiesced and brought in Laraque. The team is still paying for him to NOT play. Do we really want to go down that route again?

Habs fans need to realize that since the beginning of last season the roster has changed a lot. Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Ryan White and Alexei Yemelin will all be on the roster this year. The team has gotten bigger and more physical without sacrificing skill or speed. This is the way to build a contender.