Enforcers & agitators, and their role in the NHL over the last 40 years

Being in my mid-20s, I never had the chance to see the great hockey players of the 70s and 80s in person. However, I have seen quite a few movies and clips from the internet, the NHL network, and ESPN classic to get a relative idea of the style of hockey played in the past. The good, old-fashioned hockey style featured enforcers shadowing the talented players, making sure the other team’s goons did not injure them. From watching hockey these days, I have noticed that this tactic is rarely used. The primary strategy is for the top players are on the first line together, and the enforcers tend used more as energy players on the fourth line. This made me wonder if the enforcers are scoring fewer points than the enforcers in the past, for one reason or another. To find the answer, I decided to do some research.

I looked up the ten players who had the highest Penalty in Minutes (PIM) in each year, from the 1970-1971 season to the 2011-2012 season (courtesy of hockeydb.com). I then checked the points for each player in that season, and then calculated the ratio of PIM to Points. I then calculated the average of each decade.

hockey - table 1
Table displaying the average PIM, points and PIM/points ratio for each decade

We see from the 1970s right up to the 2000s that there was a steady rise in the PIM to points ratio. This means that for every point an enforcer scored, he spent more and more time in the box. Enforcers were scoring twice as many points in the 70s and 80s than in the last 20 years. However, the amount of PIM has only dropped in the last 10 years.

To put it in perspective, enforcers in the 1970s would be in an average of two fights for every point. In the 1990s, they would be in five fights for every point. In the 2000s, it would drop to just over four fights for every point. Zenon Konopka had the highest PIM/pts ratio last year with 38.60. That’s almost 8 fights for every one point (keep in mind that not all these penalty minutes are from fights; it is simply an analogy to compare the amount of penalties taken compared to the offensive production of these players).

hockey - graph 1
A graph looking at average PIM and average points for the last 4 decades

The results show that there has been a transition in the type of enforcers used in the NHL. The statistics show that players are scoring fewer points than in the past. We are seeing that enforcers are becoming less productive offensively, and are being used more as energy players. Over the years, the offensive production of enforcers has dropped significantly, while the amount of penalty minutes has only dropped slightly, and only in the last 12 years.

What kind of picture does this paint, concerning the current NHL? The statistics suggest that tough guys are scoring fewer and fewer goals, while at the same time taking fewer penalties. The last decade had the lowest average penalty minutes in the last 40 years. Even though they are taking fewer penalties, they are also producing less offensively for their team. There are of course exceptions, such as Chris Neil and David Clarkson. These two are energy players who still manage to produce offense for their team. There is the complete other side of the scale. There are players like Cam Janssen, who in the 2009-2010 season had 190 penalty minutes and not a single point. Players such as Trevor Gillies, Georges Laraque, and Paul Bissonnette are not big offensive contributors. They are still important to their team by being energy players, used to swing momentum in their team’s favour, back up their teammates, and send a message to the opposition.

We may be seeing the start of a greater use of agitators; players not necessarily there to just fight, or to shadow star players as in the past. These “hybrid-enforcers” have their own role, which is to bring energy, grit, and when the time comes, to fight for their team. Coaches love players that can produce offensively while simultaneously protect their teammates and bring energy. I am suggesting that in the next few years, we will see a rise in points from high penalty minute players. We will start seeing more and more players who can fight and score at the same time, bringing points up and keeping PIM around the same number. In my opinion, tough guys who cannot keep up with the speed of the game will be replaced with more talented players who can still fight, players like Chris Neil, David Clarkson, Milan Lucic and Steve Downie (prime examples of “functioning” agitators). The problem is, that these players are extremely rare. Players who can score and fight are very hard to come by, and most teams would love to get their hands on one. Will teams start drafting bigger, more talented players instead of pure tough guys? The next decade of hockey will be very interesting to watch.

On Thursday, I will be sharing with you my discussion on these statistics with one of the best tough guys of his time, Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan. I had a phone interview with Chris this week, and he shared some invaluable input as to what has changed in the last 40 years. Drop by next Thursday for his take on the issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s