No team in the NHL fights less often than the Detroit Red Wings. Not coincidentally, no team benefits from the presence of fighting in hockey more than the Detroit Red Wings.
It’s not like Detroit fights a little less than other NHL teams, either; they aren’t even in the same ballpark as the next team on the list. A quick look at major penalties since the 2004-05 NHL Lockout confirms that for us:
|2||St. Louis Blues||435|
|30||Detroit Red Wings||115|
The Red Wings fight half as often as the next team on the list above. They fight one-third as often as an NHL average team. They fight less than one-quarter as often as the Anaheim Ducks.
That gives Detroit a significant advantage. Why can we say that?
The reasoning is pretty straight forward. Fighting has little to no connection with winning hockey games. Teams that construct their roster with an emphasis on fighting by default sacrifice other skills that actually help them win games.
Those are big claims, so let’s look at them in a little more detail.
Fighting ≠ Winning
A few years back, Terry Appleby of PowerScout Hockey made a bit of a splash in hockey circles by claiming that the momentum from fighting helped teams win hockey games. It was a popular piece, in part because it confirmed the traditionally held value that a fight can get a team going.
In brief: Appleby failed to control for external factors such as power plays resulting from the fight, the natural increase in shots as the fourth line came off the ice, the winner of the fight, score effects and so on. He also found that his supposed momentum boost impacted both teams, meaning that even if all those other effects had been weighed, there could be no way for a coach to know if a fight would help his team or the opposition.
Better studies by other analysts, such as Gabriel Desjardins of Hockey Prospectus and Phil Birnbaum of Sabermetric Research, were more rigorous. They found that there is some small benefit from fighting.
In Desjardins words, “the direct benefit is probably on the order of having the equipment guys make sure nobody’s playing with an illegal stick.”
Sacrificing Other Skills
Let’s try a hypothetical. Pretend for a moment that one can assign a number to the ability of every aspiring NHLer in a certain category. So things like speed, shooting and size would all be given a number value.
Consider the following two fictional players:
Player A isn’t anything special. He’s an average player in virtually every way, with decent but unspectacular abilities in all areas of the game. Player B is a designated enforcer type: big and tough and virtually useless everywhere else.
A hypothetical team that weighs these categories equally will give Player B a job over Player A, despite the fact that Player A is superior in virtually every way, because if fighting is seen as an important skill, he’s a slightly better player overall.
That’s how a player like Steve MacIntyre—who played in places like the Quebec Semi-Pro Hockey League and the World Hockey Association 2—has 91 NHL games.
Of course, teams don’t weigh these categories equally. Some teams prefer a little more speed or a little more size or a little more of whatever they lack in the lineup at that particular moment. But the point is this: If fighting has little correlation to winning games, teams that value fighting highly are going to employ players who can fight over players who can help them win.
A team that doesn’t value fighters frees itself up in many ways. It frees a roster spot for a skater that can help the team win; in some cases, that could be a skater that would have been waived and demoted. It doesn’t take up spots on its 50-man list with NHL and AHL tough guys. It doesn’t waste draft picks that could be used more wisely.
Detroit's 2005-06 team is a nice example of the things that can be done with a fourth line when it is unencumbered by a player in the traditional enforcer role. The Red Wings were able to experiment, and took chances on a pair of players: Dan Cleary and Johan Franzen.
Franzen was a big European that the Red Wings had drafted as an overage player in 2004; they stuck him on the fourth line and he put up 16 points as an NHL rookie. They would gradually ease him up the depth chart in later years and he became a key part of their team.
Cleary was a reclamation project in his late 20's; Detroit decided to take a flyer on him in the role, too. Cleary had bounced from Chicago to Edmonton to Phoenix without ever really delivering on his enormous potential, and he didn't that first year in Detroit either with just 15 points in 77 games. He too would get more chances in further years, and evolved into a critical two-way player for the Wings.
Either player might have been the one bumped if Detroit had opted for an enforcer; Cleary in particular was nothing special as a fourth-liner at the time and might never have been signed.
This has been a hidden advantage for general manager Ken Holland’s Red Wings for years now. While opponents spend significant resources on players that don’t generate wins, Detroit has been able to expend itself more wisely. And as long as fighting is part of the game, there’s no reason the Wings can’t continue to find hidden gems while their opponents employ enforcers.