Pittsburgh Penguins Bench Steve MacIntyre: Are NHL Enforcers Useless?

Jason Sapunka@moreSapunkaCorrespondent IIOctober 30, 2011

EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 9: Steve MacIntyre #33 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Edmonton Oilers on October 9, 2011 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

Prior to the start of the 2011-12 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins signed the best fighter in the NHL.

Steve MacIntyre was locked into a contract with one of the league's most talented teams. Presumably, the 6' 5", 250-pound mammoth of an enforcer would provide protection services for the talented members of Steel City's hockey team.

However, MacIntyre has played just four of the Penguins' 13 regular season games. The games off include the team's past three, which were against the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Islanders and Maple Leafs are home to not only two of the game's greatest fighters in Trevor Gillies and Colton Orr, but two of the league's most aggressive enforcers as well. Both Gillies and Orr will run over opposing lineups, to an even greater intensity if nobody is there to stop them.

MacIntyre's punching power was rivaled by only Derek Boogaard last season. With Boogaard's passing, MacIntyre lays claim to the undisputed hardest punch in hockey.

Last season, he knocked out Raitis Ivanans of the Calgary Flames on opening night. Ivanans missed the entire season with a concussion and did not play in another hockey game until October 23, 2011. That's how powerful MacIntyre is.

This fearsome presence of the Saskatchewan-native beast is enough to deter opponents from taking advantage of the Penguins.

Few teams rival the potential dangers to Pittsburgh that New York and Toronto carry. Matt Carkner of the Ottawa Senators is the most serious threat in terms of being able to compete with MacIntyre in a fight, but is not aggressive in tearing down the opposition like Gillies and Orr are.

If MacIntyre was brought in to protect the Penguins, why was he not dressed? Is he being paid to have good press box seats to an NHL hockey game?

If MacIntyre is not skating on the ice ensuring teams do not take a run at talented Pittsburgh stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal, he does not serve much of a purpose to the franchise.

MacIntyre does not score at the NHL level. He is not great defensively. He is not a penalty-killing specialist. He is built in the mold of a heavyweight enforcer.

Several other players fit this mold beyond those previously mentioned; George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks, John Scott of the Chicago Blackhawks, Darcy Hordichuk of the Edmonton Oilers, Kevin Westgarth of the Los Angeles Kings, Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen of the New Jersey Devils, Jody Shelley of the Philadelphia Flyers, Paul Bissonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes and Brian McGrattan of the Nashville Predators.

The players are one-dimensional enforcers. To the casual fan, they might seem like goons, just some punks meant to cause trouble as part of hockey's sideshow. In reality, they skate out on the ice to provide the intimidating presence only a real enforcer can bring.

They're actually one of each team's most valuable entities, when used.

Opponents know not to try anything risky against these men. Take a cheap shot, talk too much, or try anything else deemed unacceptable will result in the enforcer attempting to punch someone.

Last season, the New York Rangers paid Boogaard $1.65 million to fill this role. Boogaard was the most intimidating force in the NHL. He could deter potential troublemakers with just a glance.

Does the healthy scratch of MacIntyre against New York and Toronto mean something in a larger sense? Is the role of the NHL heavyweight enforcer diminishing?

Bob Probert is the greatest hockey fighter of all-time, but he was not a single-purpose enforcer like MacIntyre. He scored over 40 points in a season four times.

How could the role of a talented scorer like Probert develop into a non-scoring entity that is today's NHL enforcer?

After Dave Schultz and the Flyers started bullying the NHL in the 1970s, teams began finding players  who could stand up against the tough guys. As teams found bigger and stronger enforcers, an type of arms race developed.

The role evolved from being a hockey player who could drop the gloves, to being a fighter who could play hockey.

HockeyFights.com lists Clark Gillies of the Islanders as the NHL's best fighter in the 1979-80 season. Gillies scored 54 points that year.

The next season, Philadelphia's Behn Wilson was listed at No. 1. Wilson totaled 63 points as a defenseman that year.

When Probert scored his career-high of 29 goals in the 1987-88 season, he was first on the list.

For the past two seasons, Boogaard was at the top of the rankings. Boogaard totaled 16 points in his 277-game NHL career.

There is a mix in motivation when putting enforcers in the lineup. Every coach asks himself, do I take the liability of my enforcer's playing skill as a drawback to protecting my skilled players?

For the Penguins, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

With the benching of MacIntyre, perhaps this is a sign of enforcing taking the backseat to skill. Maybe the league's enforcers will go back to being productive players like Gillies, Wilson and Probert.

Where the single-purpose enforcer goes from now cannot be predicted. However, the actions of Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma are not promising for fans of the role. 

Regardless, enforcers are still a prominent factor in the NHL. Otherwise, passive Flyers coach Peter Laviolette would not have dressed Shelley on Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Shelley explained the details of the role in an interview when he was a member of the San Jose Sharks:

"My job is something that's hard to explain, it's something that people don't really understand... Fighting is good for the game. Fighting is part of hockey. There's a part of our game that needs to be policed by the men of the game... It's my job to be a presence. If it's not on the ice, it's on the bench. It's letting (the opponent) know that, 'Hey, that's not gonna fly.' By addressing that on the bench, you know beside me, 'No, that's not gonna fly... You think you're gonna get away with that? You're not.'"

The Hurricanes do not have an enforcer. Shelley still played. This is a resounding testament to the importance of this role in hockey.

Enforcers may evolve to match the changing styles of the NHL, but hockey will always need them.


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