Gone are the days of the burly forwards missing a bit more than a couple of teeth with a sole purpose of taking out their target on the ice, the National Hockey League must now welcome the newest trend in enforcers.
The enforcer is a staple on many of the league’s teams and is no stranger to the public: big, strong forwards whose purpose is to protect their star teammates.
Usually slow and lacking offensive skill, the enforcers are added to the roster as a way for teams to enforce the implied rules of the game. They protect star players from unwarranted body checks and use fighting as an attempt to motivate their teammates. The NHL is changing, though, and we are now seeing fewer and fewer teams include the once-popular enforcer.
For the first time since the 1970s, the Philadelphia Flyers started an NHL season without a true enforcer on their roster, odd for a team nicknamed “The Broad Street Bullies.” Other teams in the NHL have taken the same approach as the Flyers. The Boston Bruins failed to re-sign bruiser Shawn Thornton during the off-season and the Toronto Maple Leafs ditched tough-guy Frazer McLaren and perennial pounder Colton Orr.
So why the sudden shift in team-building mentality? The rationale for including a few enforcers on your roster was that their presence would make the rest of the team feel safer. The enforcers were meant to intimidate opposing players in an attempt at preventing unwarranted hits. If an opposing player were to get too physical with one of the other players, the enforcers would step in and deal with things. The players would then be able to perform at a higher level since they weren’t worried of constantly getting run over.
However, having enforcers on a roster has its drawbacks. Usually, one of the four forward lines is sent out in situations when some policing was needed. This means that only three “skilled” lines were able to be used, thus tiring out the forwards quicker than if four lines were available. The three-line strategy was exposed when opposing teams decided to field four skilled lines.
Four skilled lines allows a team to run more talent against their opponents and are therefore able to keep their players slightly more rested. Having four skilled lines begs the question, though, of how will players be able to police the games for themselves? This is where we see a new type of enforcer emerge, a hybrid of sorts. This new style of enforcer is smaller, quicker, and more skilled than the players of old. They still carry a decent amount of physicality and combine a grinding-type player with a skill-based forward.
With the NHL becoming quicker and focusing more on scoring, the hybrid enforcer is going to be an increasingly important player. Teams with the four-line system have already shown how strong they can be. Take, for example, the two teams who competed in the Stanley Cup Finals last year: the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers. The Kings’ roster was comprised of a skilled first line focused solely on scoring, but their other three lines were built around quick, hard-working, physical players.
The Rangers also deployed a similar roster. Though arguably lacking the same offensive skill that the Kings did, the Rangers’ roster still consisted of a third and fourth line with speed and grit. It’s no surprise that these two teams made it all of the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The days of fielding a traditional roster consisting of big enforcers is gone. Now, a new type of enforcer is emerging and they will be a crucial component of any successful team.