Islanders Enforcer Debate, Episode 72: Yablonski, Yzerman

Regular readers know my views on fighting's bizarre place, so I won't repeat them other than to sum up: As long as fighting's part of the game, enforcers have their place; but enforcers who can't play hockey rarely help you. 'Tis much better to have an actual player who can fight than to have a fighter who cannot play. The enforcers available last summer and this -- Andrew Peters, Donald Brashear, Derek Boogaard -- how do I put this?...They can't really play hockey at the NHL level, which is why the first two were not retained by the teams that signed them, and the third was the recipient of the most widely-mocked contract this summer.

With the signing of Jeremy Yablonski -- an experienced AHL fighter who has hardly sniffed the NHL for a very good reason -- Chris Botta writes:

It was just a year ago that Islanders management laughed at the idea of having frequent fighters in the organization... {snip} ...That’s quite a change in philosophy in one year.

Is it really quite a change though? Last year this organization employed Trevor Gillies, Joel Rechlicz, Micheal Haley, Pascal Morency (remember him?) -- even throw Jeremy Reich in to go with your Tim Jackmans and Nate Thompsons in the "can play a little and is willing to fight" category. All of them candidates to bring various levels of crazy to the big club if needed.

If anything, the Isles have adjusted to add experienced fighters instead of betting on the younger Joel Rechliczes and Mitch Fritzes to develop into something more. Regardless, the same conundrum remains: How do you carry guys who can scare the opposition without bleeding goals at 5-on-5?

On that topic, I found quotes from Popularly Ordained GM Genius of the Summer (and Hall of Famer) Steve Yzerman -- who let Konopka walk, remember -- and his new head coach very interesting:

"I want to improve the skill level and the ability of the team with players who compete hard. Guy [Boucher, the new Lightning coach] uses the term 'first on the puck.' That’s the kind of toughness he wants. He wants guys going in there playing all out. We’re not going to emphasize having to fight. I think it's an over-emphasized part of the game. I think guys who compete hard and are willing to do whatever you have to do to win are more important. Just use Marty St. Louis as an example. He competes hard and is as tough as there is because he’s willing to do whatever he has to do to win a hockey game. That’s the kind of toughness we’re talking about."

Boucher said he isn't necessarily opposed to having an enforcer on the team. But he added, "It always depends. I've had teams with enforcers. I've had teams with no enforcers. I’ve won with both. 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.

Well, that line of thinking sure sounds familiar. (It's interesting that the Lightning elected to re-sign Nate Thompson, the fourth-line center who takes faceoffs a lot and also fights, and elected to let go Zenon Konopka, the fourth-line guy who fights a lot and also takes faceoffs.)

Or how about ex-Islander Ray Ferarro, as discussed a year ago here:

I don't love the fight that has very little purpose in the context of the game. When the heavyweights go at it, who else does it affect? You cheer for your guy, he's your teammate, you don't want him to get hurt and these guys are generally as good a person as you will run into. The fight ends and the game resumes. What's changed? More room on the bench? The heavyweight doesn't play a lot (generally under five minutes) and unless he is a good skater who can throw his weight around, he has minimal impact on the other team's skill players. I was always way more concerned with someone who finished every check with a purpose - think Cal Clutterbuck or Brenden Morrow - than with someone who I was never on the ice against.

It's not their fault, of course: Career-wise, guys end up choosing the fighting route only as a last resort, when they've reached the end of their talent rope, so to speak. They're all talented enough to get to juniors or the AHL, they're just not in that upper-upper elite of world talent that typically makes the NHL. Meanwhile, guys like Brashear tend to fight less once they're established, because let's be honest: Who wants to do this toughest of jobs, night after night, against young up-and-comers who want to steal your job by out-crazying you, if you can rest a bit on hard-earned reputation instead? It's thankless labor, its only reward being a tenuous NHL job, a nice (if brief) salary, and fan popularity before your body breaks down.

But the reality of NHL hockey is that while fans are gazing their eyes at the potential heavyweight fight that sells tickets and enlivens arenas, NHL coaches are trying to get that matchup where their talented forwards can skate circles around the other team's one-trick pony and slap him with a minus-2 for his six minutes of time on ice.

 

'Team Toughness' is an Ambiguous Chemistry Experiment

That's not to say you can employ a team of pacifists and survive an 82-game season though. It's just that this stuff is hard: "Team toughness" is a nuanced phenomenon that involves intimidation of, or at least respect from, the other team -- as well as the very real-but-hard-to-quantify "self-belief" among your troops. It is a difficult thing to build, as it requires everybody to buy in, and sometimes those buyers are a bunch of kids like the Islanders. It can be enhanced by the signing of one scary guy, but it cannot be solved by the over-commitment to one bad hockey player. GMs are wise to tread carefully.

Obviously the Islanders were rarely "toughened up" by Rechlicz's or Fritz's presence. It seems they needed a steadier hand, a guy who knew the ropes from years of reading pro players, pro refs and pro coaches to get a feel for the game. It seems Gillies provided that spark, a veteran's steady hand, one that influenced the lineup, which is why his one-game Flyers callup in mid-winter evolved into a longer stay and a contract extension. (Let's not forget, though, that Gillies took stupid penalties against the Flyers early in his call-up.)

But that doesn't mean this ephemeral "toughness" is as simple as adding an enforcer or two. Ask Rangers fans about the Brashear Experience. Ask Devils fans about the Peters Experience. Every year, the cries from Islanders faithful are the same: "We need a real enforcer!" But that need is easier said than fulfilled. Some of these guys do more harm than good, including the "name" enforcers everyone calls for (How did Georges Laraque's year go?).

 

So, What is the Islanders Philosophy Here?

I suspect the reason the Islanders have played around in this non-name-brand area the last two seasons is because enforcers just aren't worth long-term roster spots or multi-million-dollar contracts. Due to the nature of their job, you can't count on them to be healthy, and when you take away their immediate incentive -- the hunger to earn another contract and keep the dream alive -- you get the Brashears of the world who leave teams wondering why they don't fight like they used to. As it is, their competence at 5-on-5 is always tenuous at best, so why risk committing long to a guy whose limited ability is apt to fall off a cliff?

So maybe you do what the Islanders did last season and this coming season: You accumulate two-way deals on fighters who can swing from the AHL to the NHL and back. That way if you lose one on waivers upon the next demotion, you have backups in the arsenal. And you don't block a guy who can play more than 5 minutes a game against decent competition without getting schooled in all those other important parts of hockey, like scoring and preventing goals.

So has the Islanders' philosophy experienced an about-face? I don't think so. But it has been refined: Instead of young Joel Rechlicz -- who, please remember, played five games for the Isles in the first half of October last year, before they decided he didn't fit -- they're going with the more experienced Gillies, who paid a dividend or two last year. And on the fourth line, instead of having a faceoff guy and fourth-liner who can fight in Nate Thompson, they're going with a more prolific and scarier fighter who can take faceoffs in Konopka.

The comparative results of this subtle shift -- both on Long Island and in Tampa -- are going to be fun to watch.

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