Are Enforcers Still Valuable to NHL Teams?

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IJanuary 25, 2014

Jan 18, 2014; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Calgary Flames forward Brian McGrattan (16) and Vancouver Canucks forward Tom Sestito (29) fight in the first 2 seconds of the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Spor

In light of the brawl between the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks last Saturday, we must again ponder the question of whether or not enforcers are valuable to their teams. We're not referring to the tough guys who play regular shifts and occasionally fight—only to the one-dimensional fighters.

Do enforcers, such as Brian McGrattan, Kevin Westgarth, Tom Sestito and newcomer Kellen Lain, still have a place in today's NHL?

Analytics provide a fascinating insight into this question. There's actually a mountain of research on this topic. It concludes that the presence of enforcers in the lineup doesn't keep a team safer from injury or attack, and that fighting does not improve a team's momentum.

Well, statistically, at least. This is just one perspective, and it's hardly the only one.

There are things that happen on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room that are known only to the players themselves. It is nevertheless quite revealing that the numbers are in sharp conflict with those who feel safer or more motivated when there's a pugilist wearing the same colors.

In this analysis, we'll look at all those studies to determine exactly what conclusions they've reached about protecting players and generating momentum. First, though, we'll define what an enforcer is, what they bring to the table (beyond fighting) and what they cost.

What Value Does an Enforcer Contribute?

First let's define this term so a list of examples can be compiled for further study.

The Adam Gretz definition of an enforcer—anyone who plays fewer than eight minutes a game, while averaging more than 1.2 penalty minutes per contestwill serve this purpose nicely. While this definition may exclude a few enforcers and include a few guys who are merely tough, checking line players, it still produces a usable sample group.

There are 19 players who have played at least 20 games so far this season and qualify under this definition. As a group, they have 26 combined goals and 50 points in 661 games, and only two of them have more than four points. Vancouver's Sestito and Paul Bissonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes have six points apiece.

The following chart shows how enforcers are used.

Hockey Abstract

It's easy to see that all the enforcers have a quality of competition below zero, meaning that they play almost exclusively against third and fourth lines.

Despite these easier assignments, their teams all get dominated when they're on the ice, with the exception of Anaheim's Tim Jackman. Using more traditional statistics, only two of the 19Bissonnette and Shawn Thornton of the Bruinshave a positive plus/minus.

Without going into much more detail, it's reasonable to say that, beyond fighting, enforcers provide no value to their teams at all.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

What Does an Enforcer Cost?

In financial terms, the average cap hit of an enforcer is just less than $770,000 per season. In fact, five of the 19 players have a cap hit of exactly $750,000. They range from league minimum to just more than the $1 million mark.

While the dollars might not add up, there is still a real cost to dressing an enforcer. They take up a spot on the bench, which could be used for a developing young player. Since enforcers play only a few minutes per game and are often in the penalty box, everyone else has to play more.

Plus, we've already seen in the player usage chart that enforcers' teammates have to take on more of the tougher opponents, and they have to overcome the shot-based disadvantage the enforcers caused.

Given these challenges, there better be a big advantage of having an enforcer!

Do Enforcers Protect Their Teams?

The most common defense for having an enforcer is that they protect the team from cheap shots and injuries. To what extent is this true, though?

The obvious first track is to compare the number of games a team loses to injury to the number of fighting majors their team took. This track was already taken by our own Jonathan Willis while writing for the Edmonton Journal last September.

Here is what he discovered in terms of the statistical correlation between teams having more fights and having more injuries. A positive number means that the team that fights more suffers more injuries than those with fewer fights.

Is There a Link Between Fighting and Injuries?
Edmonton Journal

If enforcers protected their teams, it seems as if fighting would reduce the number of injuries. Surprisingly, Willis found that "in four of five seasons there was a positive correlation—meaning that teams with more fights suffered more injuries."

This work was confirmed by blogger Curtis LeBlanc of Oil! this past offseason.

"There is at best a very weak correlation, if any at all, between the number of fighting majors a team took and the number of man games they lost in 2012-2013," he wrote.

Since injuries can be so random and unpredictable, perhaps it's unfair to put the weight of a team's injuries on the enforcer's shoulders.

That's why Adam Gretz took a different approach, looking only at whether enforcers prevented the likelihood of cheap shots and dirty hits.

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 07:  Brooks Orpik #44 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is tended to by the medical staff on the ice in the first period after an altercation with Shawn Thornton #22 of the Boston Bruins in the first period during the game at TD Garden on D
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Again, though, no value to having an enforcer was found.

Gretz's study concluded that over the previous two seasons, a team with an enforcer was just as likely as a team without one to be on the receiving end of a violent act that resulted in a match penalty, fine or suspension.

At the risk of overkill, a topic as controversial as this requires at least one more confirmation.

Fortunately, blogger SkinnyFish at Pension Plan Puppets went one step further, studying the 2012-13 correlation between how often a team fights and how often they draw physical penalties.

If fighting deterred such dirty behavior, there would be a negative correlation between the two. In fact, though, there was virtually no correlation at all.

The study concluded that "this should be the proverbial nail in the coffin for talk about fighting serving as a deterrent for naughty behavior in hockey."

While that may be a little too definitive a statement, these studies paint a highly compelling picture that having an enforcer does not reduce a team's risk of injury. It also doesn't reduce the likelihood of being on the receiving end of dirty hits and cheap shots.


Does Fighting Provide Momentum?

There has also been no shortage of research looking for a link between fighting and a team's momentum. Thus far, no such connection has been found—or at least not one of any real significance.

The first important study on fighting and momentum was done in 2009 by Gabriel Desjardins of Hockey Prospectus. By looking at the voted winners in fights and the subsequent change in a team's goal-differential, he found that "winning a fight is worth a little more than 1/80th of a win in the standings."

Does Scoring Increase After Winning a Fight?
SituationNext 10 MinutesAfter 10 Minutes
All Games0.0762 more goals0.0134 more goals
Down 1 or 2 goals0.0710 more goals0.0042 more goals
Hockey Prospectus

That certainly doesn't sound like it warrants the inclusion of a fighterespecially one who can't also handle a regular shiftin a team's lineup.

More recent studies have actually found that winning a fight actually hurt a team's momentum last season.

Travis Yost of NHL Numbers took it a step further and looked only at fights involving enforcers. His study actually found that the team on the winning side of an enforcer's fight was actually more likely to concede the next goal than to score it.

Again, this work was confirmed by another separate, independent source.

Xavier Weisenreder of Georgetown Sports Analysis found that "there is no evidence that winning a fight leads to better results in the immediate aftermath of the fight. In fact, it appears that the team winning the fight will score slightly less goals in the game than they did previously."

Perhaps winning a fight isn't nearly as important as simply having the fight in the first place, in terms of changing momentum.

Well, Phil Birnbaum conducted a thorough study, looking at what happened to teams that instigated a fight. After much analysis on 30-year-old data, the most he was prepared to concede was that "there might be a small effect in certain specific circumstances."

Another dead end.

If fighting does indeed change a game's momentum and gives a team a boost, it isn't something that can be consistently captured analytically on the scoresheet.

Do Enforcers Have Value?

Statistically there is absolutely no evidence that enforcers help teams in any way at all. They provide virtually no value to a team outside of fighting, their fights don't result in goal-creating momentum and they don't reduce the likelihood of injuries or violent play on the part of their opponents.

The first conclusion is practically true by definition, and four separate, independent and comprehensive studies have all reached each of the latter two conclusions.

So, no, enforcers do not have value. This isn't meant to be a definitive answer, of course, merely the perspective of the analytics.

There may indeed be a benefit to having an enforcer on the team, but, if so, it is not one that has ever been captured on a scoresheet.

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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