Monday, 18 June 2012

More Facts on the Role of Enforcers

Hockey is unique in that some teams use up a roster spot for a player whose primary role is to break the rules – to go out on the ice and engage in a fight.  Enforcers are not as numerous today but they are also not an endangered species just yet.  But if you study the statistics you have to wonder why teams continue to invest in the role.

I’ll offer two articles that present more evidence that the enforcer adds very little to a team’s performance. One sheds light on how these players are actually used on the ice, that they are involved in far less policing and a lot more message sending.  The other uses advanced statistics to demonstrate how they compare in performance to other team mates.

From Arctic Ice Hockey comes an article on Goon Icetime: or what coaches reallythink of their fight-first players.  The authors dispel a lot of myths about why enforcers are on the time by analyzing their ice time and when they are more likely to be on the ice.  The entire article is interesting and I recommend that you read it, but here are some highlights from the material. 
  • The common thread among great games is good players doing great things. We want to see the most talented players as much as possible, while limiting the playing time for the rest. And, when it comes to enforcers, the playing time shrinks to something non-existent in great games.
  • The most direct negative effect is that teams allow significantly more goals than they score when they ice an enforcer.
  • Even though only one-sixth of the game is played with a 3-goal lead or more, 27% of all fights occur then, with fighting much more likely when the home team has a big lead.
  • Despite claims from the proponents of fighting that it serves as a deterrent for dirty play – after all, a player who commits an egregious stick foul or hits another player from behind will have to fight his next time on the ice – fights seem much more likely to result from a road team’s coach sending a goon out on the ice to take out the team’s frustrations during a big loss.
  • Their usage is primarily at even-strength, where they average roughly eight minutes and twenty seconds per game, a figure that puts most of them dead last in ice time on their respective teams.
  • In the last two minutes of the game, they were than three-and-a-half times more likely to be playing if one team had a lead of three goals or more than in a tie game and five times more likely than in a one-goal game. And that’s the story of the goon: as essential a part of a successful team as hockey observers claim he is, he is almost never on the ice when the game is really on the line.
  • With each team a man down, our goon squad is three times less likely to be on the ice than at 5-on-5. And in overtime they are 13 times less likely to be on the ice than they are overall, and 23 times less likely to be on the ice than in the last two minutes of a blowout, their prime time for causing trouble.

If fighting is part of the game, and an enforcer is an integral component of the team, why are they rarely on the ice, or even dressed, when winning becomes really important.  It’s apparent from the analysis provided by Artic Ice that coaches use these players to disrupt and deliver retribution.

The Backhand Shelf posted a great article on a different way to look at advanced stats, presenting Rob Vollman’s Player Usage Charts.   They do a great job of graphically representing Zone Starts, Quality of Competition, and Relative Corsi statistics, with a separate chart for each team.  The charts are a visually interesting way to immediately see how a player was used by a particular team and how well they did in that role.

I’ll leave the detailed (and better) explanation to The Backhand Shelf, but the graphic below gives you an idea of how players are charted.  The horizontal axis represents zone starts: the further to the right the player is on the chart, the more the player started in the offensive zone. The vertical axis represents quality of competition: the higher the player is on the chart, the tougher the opponents that player faced.   Essentially, if a player is found in the top left corner of the chart, they’re starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone and facing the opponent’s best players. If a player is in the bottom right corner, they’re starting mostly in the offensive zone and facing the opponent’s worst players. This is normally where you’ll find a team’s enforcers.

If you download the PDF file mentioned in the Backhand Shelf article, you get analysis of each team in the league along with these comments on some well-known enforcers.

  • Certainly confirms the annual case we make that tough guys like Jared Boll, who can’t even play highly sheltered minutes against depth lines, are completely unnecessary.
  • It appears Brandon Bollig may have been a bit overmatched at the NHL level. Despite being fed cupcake minutes he still finished with by far the worst CorsiRel on the team.
  • Likewise, gritty defensive minded Jamal Mayers struggled all year despite playing almost exclusively against 4th liners.
  • Jared Ortmeyer and huge thug Matt Kassian put them in a hole almost every time they played.
  • Brad Mills and Cam Janssen are abjectly terrible hockey players.
  • They were horrible on the ice and these charts show it plainly. It's bizarre that they'll likely be in the NHL.
  • Damn Jay Rosehill for stretching out the Player Usage chart even more than most strict enforcers!  Yet another reason to get rid of these types of players who can’t even skate a regular shift against NHL regulars in their own zone.

Reviewing the detailed team charts you can see that the enforcers are almost always playing sheltered minutes, starting in their own zone against weaker competition.  Despite that they end up giving up more goals and shots on net, and turning over the puck to the other team.  It becomes obvious that if you dedicate a roster spot to a player whose primary skill is dropping their gloves, you are building a weaker team.

I don’t want to personally attack the individuals who are known as NHL enforcers.  Despite my opinion that the role should not exist, the fact remains that many are fan favourites and are popular with their teams.  The NHL and NHLPA continue to tolerate an activity that disrupts exciting hockey, damages their image as a professional sport and has real risks to the players who punch each other in the face on a regular basis.  Therefore junior and minor leaguers will dismiss all risks in the hope that they can fulfill their dream of an NHL career.

But if you are a general manager or a coach your responsibility is to improve your team in any way possible.  Based on the analysis above, and other stats I have presented in past posts, the decision to use up a valuable position on the team for an enforcer is dubious at best.  The facts overwhelmingly show that the designated fighter can’t hold their own on the rink and has a negative impact on team performance.  The cultural belief that fighting is needed to police the game is misguided, but remains a strong motivational factor for many teams.


  1. Your points are all against enforcers not fighting in general, this shit doesn't make any sense. Enforcers are already a dying breed, your site is invalid.

  2. These points are a bunch of crap. There are no stats given to back them up. The article claims the most direct negative effect is teams allow a lot more goals when they're out there. Its bunk! The Hawks two main "goons" ,Bollig and Scott, were a combined -2. All this uproar over a -2.
    And another thing, who do you think is going to replace these players? All Star players? It would be some guy who is going to score 2 or 3 goals all year. He is going to play the same number of minutes as the enforcer he is replacing. You remember Jordan Hendry from the Hawks Cup team a few years ago. No? thats the type of player you would get.
    Another stupid point, the enforcers only play at the end of the game if its a blow out. Really? can you name one sport that doesn't do the same thing? Every sport puts in their reserves at the end of a blow out game.

  3. What happens when there is a fight on the ice? Everyone in the audience stands, cheers and hoots and hollars. And until that changes, fighting will remain a part of the NHL.

  4. the idea that banning fighting would bring in more fans (the 'cleaning up the image' argument) is ludicrous. ya like hockey or ya don't, and most who don't only like the fights. don't like it? don't watch the 90 seconds of fighting every 3-4 games.