Last season, fighting in hockey was the subject of national debate in Canada, from one of the Great White North's premier sports talk programs to the CBC's fifth estate production, "The Code." And more particularly, the role of the "enforcer" and the modern trend of the "staged fight," one that does not arise "out of the emotion, the spontaneity of the game, [or] a guy responding to a questionable hit on himself or on a teammate," but those "pre-arranged fights that don’t arise out of the play, [where] two heavyweights squar[e] off before a face-off, or text[ ] each other leading up to a game," as the former, recently-ousted NHLPA Director Paul Kelly once described.
Whether you, the fan, find those marquee bouts richly entertaining, or awkward and uncomfortable to watch, staged fights will undoubtedly remain in the game (with perhaps some tweaks to the rules, notwithstanding, down the road). But what of the "responding to a questionable hit" variety of fisticuffs? And whither your 2009-10 Washington Capitals' lack of a classic (well, in this current era, anyway) enforcer? Is one necessary to protect our elite, young and still-evolving corps of offensive talent from dirty hits and cheap shots? If so, at what price? Donald Brashear's $1.4 million per, or Colton Orr's $1 million per, for four years? Lappy's three year, $3.5 million pact?
John Erskine believes that each Cap, to a man, can and will stick up for each other, without a designated pile driver. Everyone's favorite cycler and re-cycler, Matt Bradley, added:
It doesn't matter to me if we have a tough guy or not; I play the same way no matter what. A lot of teams nowadays don't have a tough guy and it works to their advantage. Look at Detroit. They don't have any tough guys and they always seem to take advantage on the power play.
So I'm not really worried about that. For me personally, I'm more worried about contributing more offensively. In the playoffs there, I began to put some numbers on the board.
Yes, Brads, we fondly remember Game 5 of the Rangers series last April. Oh, baby. Having a player with some offensive and smooth-skating abilities, however modest, packaged in layers of heavy sandpaper, over a skater far more one-dimensional, provides a critical post-season advantage. And in our now legendary Pick 'Em file of "Brads or Brash?," Rink readers chose Matt.
So putting aside the issue of whether your entertainment value is diminished by the curtailment of the aforementioned pre-destined bouts between the "elite" pugilists, a debate over whether or not an enforcer is necessary for this incoming Caps team can, I think, be distilled to: is this squad, to a man, tough enough?
To say no is to suggest the need for an enforcer to pick up where those other individuals leave off (or never reach). But that's an imperfect solution. Better to have a whole line of gritty guys that have other useful tools in the box and that are, hopefully, less expensive. Don't we wish that just a few more of our forwards played with more Alex Ovechkin-like abandon?
To put it more poetically, how many on this team are certified bad-asses and how many are floaters? Can those in the former category keep the chippy play in check? Or, is having this self-described game-changing ability the critical post-season advantage?
We could compare post-lockout win-loss records and championships won to number of fighting majors earned by team, to assess whether having a top-end tough guy equates to more victories. But we've already seen in that time both the openly thuggish (Anaheim, 2006-07) and the no-nonsense, but breathtakingly crafty (Detroit, 2007-08) hoist la Coupe Stanley. We could also compare the number of majors earned by team to the number of instances in which an elite scorer on that team was dealt an injurious blow that forced him out of the lineup for a significant number of games. But we know quite well 'round here that correlation does not equal causation.
Let's look at the Caps' record from last year with and without Brashear in the lineup. In the regular season, the team went 37-21-5 with him dressed, and 13-3-3 without. In the playoffs? 3-1 with him and 4-6 without him. Significant?
It's impossible to predict whether or not having a goon in the lineup is going to deter a certain nasty hit or prevent an injury to a teammate. Or, more generally, quietly intimidate an opponent into defeat. It's got to be the whole machine, every cog, working together. (Not to mention staying in supreme physical condition to withstand some awkward crashes.)
But as Caps fans who have seen many a key stars-and-stripes contributor go down on account of an unsavory collision over the years, we wonder of today's collective D.C. toughness: Is it ever gonna be enough?
Happy Labor Day weekend, Caps fan brothers and sisters.