The reason's for NHL fighting's decline are many, but Pierre LeBrun of ESPN recently discussed the primary tactical one: Nothing to do with violence, or TV contracts, or the growth of players from non-fighting hockey cultures.
Rather, the fact the NHL's biggest fighters over the last several decades tend to be its worst players, and teams increasingly are relying on four lines, which means fewer five-minute "enforcer" players in the lineup.
If you've followed the New York Islanders this season, or have waded into a Lighthouse Hockey comment section on just about any day, you know where this is going.
The Isles have kept Eric Boulton thus far this season, though he hasn't appeared in any of the first nine games. Where in previous years the Metro (once Atlantic, once Patrick) saw a summer arms shuffle that virtually assured each team would have a traditional enforcer, this past summer that changed.
LeBrun discussed traditional Metro culprit Number 1 (emphasis mine):
Two organizations that have traditionally had heavyweight enforcers were going without.
"The games are so close," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall told ESPN.com Wednesday. "I think we all weigh on our top players a lot, and at points I think too much, so I think giving your so-called fourth line a couple of extra minutes, or maybe an extra 3-4 minutes, is becoming bigger and bigger. The guys there have to be good hockey players. I'm not saying our guy [Rosehill] that we demoted wasn't a good hockey player, but we were just looking for a few more minutes from those fourth-line guys."
It's even happened to the Flyers' spiritual brothers up north:
It’s a realization that was made in Toronto.
"Colton worked hard and brought other elements besides fighting," Leafs GM Dave Nonis told ESPN.com Wednesday. "He did a good job for us, and did play in the playoffs when fighting wasn't part of the game. But the actual minutes that we’re trying to pull out of our fourth line and the combinations that we want available for the coaches has lent itself to a different style of player right now."
The Leafs were essentially a three-line team on most nights last season, Orr and McLaren playing very limited minutes. The best teams in this league are truly four-line teams.
Much moreso than the Chicago Blackhawks, who often shortened their bench whether there were fighters or not, the current league champions have helped establish the new standard:
In a copycat league, look at the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. There's no goon on that team. And yet they're one of the most physically imposing teams around. They’ve got guys like Matt Greene, Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford that drop the gloves and protect their teammates. But those guys are good hockey players, too.
L.A.'s fourth line, with players such as Clifford or Trevor Lewis, can also move up and down the lineup if need be in case of injuries or in-game matchups. You can’t do that with traditional enforcers.
The Islanders currently use one fourth-line player who can undeniably move up and down the lineup in Cal Clutterbuck. Depending on the pace of injury recoveries, they might soon have more.
A Different Fourth Line?
That will pose some decisions for management and staff, decisions that were mostly punted thanks to injuries thus far: Has Boulton's time come? Does Matt Martin then descend into the Boulton in-sometimes, out-others role -- the one many expected he would get when the Islanders dramatically improved their forward depth this summer?
That, truly, is the decision outsiders don't yet know how the team will proceed. The Isles began the season with Michael Grabner on Injured Reserve, which allowed them to at least punt one decision. It didn't take many games for them to make another though, waiving and demoting Colin McDonald while recalling waiver-exempt Anders Lee, who didn't make the opening roster.
Grabner and Josh Bailey's eventual return from IR could threaten both Lee and Martin (or perhaps Cory Conacher, currently getting first-line work), barring further injuries. As discussed quite often in the offseason, that would start to truly build four offensively threatening lines, whereas the current fourth line of Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck rarely generates offense and is arguably a net loss even in its current "reduce harm" role.
And that is where coach Jack Capuano's preferences and the roster available to him could clash. Capuano clearly has no reservations about using four lines; on the contrary, the frequent question here is whether he actually uses his fourth line too much, given their abilities. They appear in defensive situations, lead-protecting situations, and traditional fourth-line "tone setting" situations like opening faceoffs that appear to be a relic of a pre-lockout era.
The dissonance is that their underlying numbers don't show they should get those roles, or at least not at the expense of extra shifts for the middle six. The fear is that Capuano still values fighting enough to keep Martin in the lineup over better wingers. The fact the Isles demoted Lee at least had waiver-related asset management rationale at the time. The decision to keep Martin over McDonald was either a (mis)judgment of their abilities or a nod to a near future, when Martin will be kept in the current Boulton role.
But one more internal upgrade might change that equation, even if it will be a line "demotion" for whichever winger bumps Martin from the lineup. Currently, Boulton hasn't been used -- so you'd think he'd be waived -- and Martin is the least-used regular Islander. It looks like the writing is on the wall, and when (if) full health is restored, we might truly see a group of 12 Islanders forwards known more for their hands than for their fists and hits.