The enforcer role, and Jeremy Reich's Islanders candidacy

"I've seen it a lot the few years he played for me. It didn't surprise me. He hasn't changed anything. I don't think I've ever coached a guy that has an understanding of when to do it, how to do it, the time and place and situation [like [he does]]. He's always been able to identify that, and not only identify it but have it make an impact."

>>Scott Gordon on Jeremy Reich, who fought twice in the Hockeyville game

For a coach who says he values the enforcer role -- but clearly values a guy who can hold his own as a skater far more -- that's some serious praise.

When Jeremy Reich signed amid several depth signings this summer, we knew he had experience under Gordon at AHL Providence, and we knew he wasn't afraid to mix it up while netting a career-high 21 goals in the AHL last year. He also had enough of defensive-minded Bruins coach Claude Julien's trust that Julien used him in Boston's playoffs two years ago in games where young Phil Kessel was a healthy scratch.

After Reich's two fights in the Islanders first preseason game, does the description Gordon gave above to Katie Strang not sound like he's the ideal Gordon enforcer?


Jeremy Reich

#17 / Left Wing / New York Islanders

6-1

203

Feb 11, 1979

9

139

21


Gordon and GM Garth Snow relied on an AHL enforcer shuttle last year, but within games Gordon employed Mitch Fritz and Joel Rechlicz so little -- sometimes as little as three minutes a game -- it was clear implementing his system was more important than sending a boxer out there to play the testosterone role demanded by hockey's curious, nebulous fighting code.

A lot of Islanders followers have worried about the Islanders' failure to sign a free agent enforcer over the summer to protect the youngsters who will form this team's core. Personally, I love that Snow didn't hand out $1 million salaries to the league's one-dimensional boxers-on-skates just because they have a reputation on hockeyfights.com. I probably undervalue the dedicated enforcer (it's clear the mythology of the role extends within most locker rooms, in a psychological way stats don't capture). But I also can't help preferring a Gordon-ideal squad of guys who can actually skate and hold their own when things get chippy.

(You can also argue that the best form of deterrence is a lethal power play, although the Islanders don't have that yet.)

Traditional goons are entertaining and make this sport more popular, but I'd rather have a Clark Gillies out there taking care of business when it really matters, than a Ken Baumgartner out there doing it just because two guys who can't really skate 5-on-5 know this ritual protects their job security.

But is the one-dimensional enforcer role still on its way out of the NHL? It's something that always seems to fluctuate. Take this for what it's worth, but here's SI's Jim Kelley's interpretation after Stephen Walkom resigned as head of NHL officiating. Kelley is referring to the shift in enforcement as the season wound down and through the 2009 playoffs:

The free skating and open ice that came to the game largely from the player ranks and efforts of a committee conceived and headed by Brendan Shanahan, began to disappear only to be replaced by more hitting (especially from behind and to the head), interference (especially around the crease and in the corners), and hits on goaltenders as crease-crashing again became the norm.

Nothing was "officially changed" regarding the rule book, but it's a given that teams recognized the new interpretations and are "bulking" up for the new season. It's also apparent that recent rules to enhance the game and protect the players are being curtailed in order to sate the blood-lust of fans and meet the business "challenge" from more violent sports like football and mixed martial arts.


... which brings us back to Reich and Gordon's candidates: The Islanders don't have an established goon who's earned his own dedicated song. Can young Rechlicz develop into that role? I'm willing to risk finding out, and see him inserted in the lineup for Philadelphia-like opponents. Meanwhile, Reich is another option, while checkers Tim Jackman and even Nate Thompson have shown a willingness to play the de facto enforcer role. Less relevant, but: if Jon Sim indeed plays his way back into Gordon's graces, he's no enforcer, but he is a shift disturber who has dropped the gloves a few times each season.

The Islanders aren't as grit-deficient as some say; they just need to stick up for one another the way Reich appears prepared to do.

Will that be enough? What do you think? I recognize my view is generally in the minority on this issue, so don't hesitate to let me have it in comments.
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