The NHL enforcer was once the most important component of a team. Clubs that were not as talented were able to counter their opponents' skill with brute strength.
Decades ago, teams like the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers enjoyed much success due to the amount of enforcers they had protecting the more skilled players they had.
The Broad Street Bullies, or the Philadelphia Flyers, were quite successful at simply beating the hell out of their opponents.
In the 1975-76 season, the Soviet Union's dominant hockey club, the Central Red Army, had a Round Robin exhibition tour against the NHL's best. The Red Army was unstoppable and defeated the New York Islanders and other elite NHL squads.
It was not until they faced the Broad Street Bullies that the Red Army truly knew the meaning of pain.
The Central Red Army was clobbered by the likes of Bill Barber and Dave Schultz, and refused to come back on the ice after intermission.
The NHL enforcer continued it's prominence throughout the years. Teams like the New Jersey Devils and the Toronto Maple Leafs attributed their success to their enforcers.
In the 1999-00 Stanley Cup, the New Jersey Devils used extreme strength and force to plow through their opponents. Players like Scott Stevens, Bobby Holik, and Ken Daneyko put fear into opponents, and allowed the Devils' defensive play to reign supreme.
The hockey role that always seemed to take a backseat to the enforcer was the role of instigator.
Decades ago, there was no such thing as an instigator; you were either an enforcer or a sniper. Nobody ever thought that a player would try to annoy an opponent to draw a penalty, but that's just what these agitators do.
The instigator did not start to gain prominence until after the 2004-05 lockout. The rule changes made the game skill oriented than strength oriented. This was quite a switch for most veterans, as strength used to come before skill in the NHL.
The amount of penalties called grew, and the amount of enforcing by the big men began to shrink. One of the best instigators of all time, Darcy Tucker, showed how important the role of instigator was, as his antics towards his opponents led to more power-play time and goals for the Maple Leafs.
Once Tucker began to become more skilled, he stopped agitating opponents as much as he used; it looked like the role of instigator was once again dead. But, the antics of New York Ranger Sean Avery created an incredible amount of excitement, and need for an instigator.
The Rangers used Avery's annoyances for two stellar playoff runs. His most famous, or infamous, moment came in round one of the 2007-08 NHL playoffs. During an offensive- zone cycle, Avery skated in front of goaltender Martin Brodeur and rapidly waved his stick in front of Brodeur, in an effort to screen the goaltender.
Clearly, Avery got into Brodeur's head; that one play may have been responsible for the 4-1 series win the Rangers obtained.
The Ottawa Senators are also seeing the benefits of having an instigator; Jarkko Ruutu is emerging into one of the better agitators in the NHL.
The Senators are receiving more power-play time, which is allowing more time for the Sens skilled players to work their magic.
Hopefully, the role of NHL enforcer will never die. However, it seems like more and more teams feel there is no need for an enforcer in the new NHL. It is nice to see a new NHL role receive prominence, but the loss of the enforcer could be catastrophic to everything that makes the NHL special.