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Are Some NHL “Fighters” More Valuable Than Critics Think?


If you’re at a Canadian house party and are looking to keep things civil, don’t talk politics, religion or whether fighting should stay in hockey. Depending on the gang’s make-up, and how many folks like their hockey ‘old school’, chit chatting about fighting’s place in the great game can quickly go south.

Of course, even fans whose favorite player ever was Bob Probert, Dave Brown or Stu Grimson, will likely concede that the days of a team having two or three enforcers (or ‘goon’ if you want to be disparaging) are quickly disappearing. In fact, the age of having just one heavyweight sit on the bench for nearly the entire game until it’s ‘go time’, is pretty much gone.

But as anyone who’s watched a NHL game recently knows, none of this means the gloves don’t hit the ice frequently (at which, it should be noted, hardly anyone changes the channel or gets up for a beer). Players who can lookout for their team’s star players or spark their teammates by throwing down continue to have a valuable place in the game.

How valuable? Well in the case of players like Brandon Prust, Cody McCleod and David Clarkson, extremely. In fact, if there was a way of quantifying their contributions in terms of deterrence or enforcement, they might be as valuable as many first and second line players.

Lets take a look at the Hab’s Brandon Prust. Now granted, Prust’s pugilistic abilities aren’t mentioned in the same breath as feared fighters like John Scott or Colton Orr, but he’s also a much more well rounded player. Case in point, according to Hockey Prospectus, Prust had a goals versus threshold (GVT) score of 4.1 last season. Now if advanced hockey metrics aren’t your thing, then you might not know that’s pretty good for a ‘role player’.

According to Prospectus, GVT “measures a player’s  worth in comparison to a typical fringe NHL player” (in terms of offensive and defensive value). So when you consider Prust ranked 223 out of 925 players, that’s pretty damn good. If traditional stats are more your thing, Prust finished the 2012-13 campaign with 5 goals, 9 assists, and a plus / minus of +11 in 38 games. According to the good folks at Hockey, Prust had 10 scraps last season and won six of them. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of fighting or not, since it’s still in the game, it’s hard to argue that Prust’s contributions in this respect also didn’t have value.

If you look at last year’s GVT rankings, you’ll see several players who are known for dropping their gloves with good or decent scores. The Leaf’s clearly saw the value in adding David Clarkson to their club, who scored 15 goals last year, put up a GVT of 3.7 for the year and scrapped 6 times. Cody McLeod put way 8 goals, recorded a very respectable 3.4 GVT and fought 7 times in 48 games. There were several other players who are noted scrappers and recorded decent GVT scores. BJ Crombeen had a 1.7, Kyle Clifford recorded a 2.7 as did John Erskine. Ryan Reaves put up a 1.3.

So, none of this is to say fighting’s here to stay, or that every “enforcer” is a better hockey player than critics think. What it does demonstrate, however, is that not every player who scraps frequently is a “goon” taking up a spot on the bench. Some of these players are in fact extremely valuable assets to their clubs, whose contributions exceed punching the opposition in the face.