In the late 1980's the Detroit Red Wings were one of hockey's toughest teams.
The "Bruise Brothers" Bob Probert and Joey Kocur are two of hockey's greatest all-time fighters. Probert is generally regarded as the best fighter in hockey history, and Kocur is renowned for having arguably the hardest punch in hockey history.
In the 1990's the toughness of the team went in a different direction. With Probert's departure, the Wings adopted a "Grind Line" consisting of Kocur, Kirk Maltby and the recently retired Kris Draper.
When Kocur retired, Darren McCarty filled the position. McCarty's role as enforcer in Detroit was undoubtable, and the effectiveness of the line helped Detroit win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998.
For the 1997-98 season, Ken Holland took over as the Red Wings' general manager.
Detroit immediately saw a drop in fighting majors from the previous season, going from 55 to 33. The following year, the total went down to 26. By the 1999-2000 season, the Red Wings were last in the NHL in regular season fighting majors with 19.
Holland claimed to have interest in signing an enforcer during the 2010 offseason, but failed to show any effort in backing those claims.
Brian McGrattan, one of the NHL's best fighters, was a free agent that offseason but was signed to an AHL contract with the Boston Bruins' Providence affiliate. Holland could have easily added McGrattan to the roster; he had remained unsigned until October.
David Koci, one of the league's biggest fighters, became a free agent this summer and is still unsigned.
Ken Holland doesn't want an enforcer.
He'd rather see some of the world's greatest hockey players like Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom get pushed around.
When Tom Kostopolous broke Brad Stuart's jaw, it was alright in Holland's mind because Kostopolous received a six-game suspension. Who needs to protect players like "Hockeytown" did in the 1980's when there's a corrupt disciplinary system in place?
It has to be difficult for Detroit fans to know that at any given moment, the team is subject to abuse without anyone being able to stick up for the potentially injured players.
Since it's clear that a one-dimensional, old-school type of heavyweight enforcer such as McGrattan is not an option for Holland, an alternate form of protection needs to be considered.
What Detroit needs is another Bob Probert; a guy who can force the opposition to respect the Red Wings without being a liability on the ice. Probert was a consistent 40-point scorer during his time and was more than just an enforcer.
The NHL still has players capable of playing effective hockey while also playing the role of the team's big brother.
- Ryan Clowe (LW, San Jose Sharks): With 62 points last season, Clowe is an established power-forward. In addition to this offensive production, Clowe does not hesitate to defend any teammate. His ability with the gloves off is very impressive; he's beaten George Parros and can hang with just about any fighter in the league.
- Milan Lucic (LW, Boston Bruins): Lucic is similar to Clowe in terms of point production and size: he also put up 62 points last season. He has yet to win a fight against a fighter at Parros' level, but has beaten Chris Neil, who is one of the league's best fighters. However, Lucic will hesitate against the bigger guys. He hid from Colton Orr and ran away from Georges Laraque's challenge.
- Scott Hartnell (LW, Philadelphia Flyers): Hartnell is not a very competent fighter; anyone familiar with his skating ability would not be surprised to see his fight attempts. However, Hartnell is quick to defend any teammate. During the regular season, Buffalo's 6' 5", 220-pound Paul Gaustad took a run at Claude Giroux. Hartnell responded. During the playoffs, Gaustad pushed down Danny Briere. Hartnell responded again.
- Steve Ott (C, Dallas Stars): Ott may be the least effective player of this style; he is just a middleweight and carries a higher penalty minute burden than the others, but he is one of few feisty centers who can also contribute points. Ott notched 32 points along with 183 PIMs last season.
- Nathan Horton (RW, Boston Bruins): Horton contributed 53 points in the regular season and set a career high with seven regular season fights, including a knockdown win over Theo Peckham.
- Wayne Simmonds (RW, Philadelphia Flyers): Simmonds had a down year in 2010-2011, dropping from 40 points to 30. However, the 6'2" 185-pound forward is certainly a capable offensive player who can handle himself without gloves on. During the 2009 preseason, Simmonds knocked out Matt Hendricks.
While none of these players are actually available and all are very unlikely to ever play in a Red Wings' uniform, the names listed here should give an idea of the type of sensible solution Detroit could use to eliminate their position as the league's softest team.
Holland may not want a one-dimensional enforcer, but he has no reason to avoid attempting to acquire the physical but skilled players such as the forwards listed above.
Detroit deserves to restore toughness to a successful franchise. The gritty reputation established by the Bruise Brothers and Grind Line has been tarnished by a passive general manager.