A lot has been written about the evolution of the game of hockey. The speed and skill of the game have increased dramatically, while certain physical elements, such as fighting, have decreased. As a result, the role of the “enforcer,” or player whose primary skillset is fighting, has been severely culled across the league.
As a whole, the slow decline of fighting in hockey has been brought about by the introduction of the instigator rule, the salary cap, and mandatory visors. A recent emphasis on suspensions for dangerous hits has exacerbated teams moving away from a designated policeman and over to a reliance on the referees and league officials to sort out the fate of a cheap shot artist.
The term “toughness” used to be primarily about how many fights a player would engage in each season. However, the descriptor has undergone a modification of sorts, and is now primarily used to describe a bevy of unheralded player stats such as blocking shots, hard checking, and playing through injury to go along with a player’s willingness to drop their gloves.
Despite all of this, like it or love it, fighting is still very much a part of the NHL game. Perhaps the only debatable point would be how much of a role fighting plays in the actual outcome of the game. Nevertheless, without fail, several games throughout the long NHL season will undoubtedly get chippy, nasty, and downright combative. Therefore, “toughness” is still an area of the game that every team has to address.
Throughout the 2020-21 season, in 56 games, the Buffalo Sabres ranked 2nd to last in fights with 6 total, tied with Carolina and Chicago. Tied for first on the list were the Ottawa Senators and the Stanley Cup-winning Lightning with 23 scraps a piece.
Of the returning Sabres players, Dylan Cozens led the squad with 2 square offs, while Colin Miller and Tage Thompson each threw down once. While Cozens and Thompson showed guts in their respective fights, both are still developing as player and therefore, I would assume the Sabres coaching staff does not want them sitting in the penalty box too often.
This offseason, in a move to add more size and a set of loose gloves, the Sabres signed forward John Hayden to 1 year deal. Formerly of the Blackhawks, Devils and, last year, Coyotes, Hayden is a big forward who plays a physical game. Listed at 6’3” and 223 lbs., he engaged in 5 fisticuffs last season, which had him tied for 3rd in the league. While Hayden is still learning the puncher’s trade, one thing is certain, he is not afraid to shed the mitts with some very tough customers. A look at last year’s dance card shows bouts with long-time tough guy Kyle Clifford, resident Ducks heavyweight Nicolas Deslauriers, and former Sabres scrapper Marcus Foligno. In total, Hayden’s been in 16 NHL tilts over the span of 4 seasons. (Fight stats courtesy of www.hockeyfights.com)
Aside from the punching contests, Hayden threw 84 hits in only 29 games last season. Examining Sabres players not named Hayden, since-traded defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen led the team in hits with 193 over 49 games last year. Next up was fellow blueliner Colin Miller with 91 collisions in 48 games.
Looking ahead to this season, apart from Miller and Hayden, the Sabres will rely on defender Robert Hagg, acquired in the Ristolainen deal, to lead the hit parade. Hagg threw 100 hits in 34 games with the Flyers last year so he can be counted on to clean a few clocks this year. Up front, despite his 5’10 frame, buzz-saw winger Drake Caggiula never avoids a hit, and big 6’2” Zemgus Girgensons will throw his weight around as well. (Hit stats courtesy of NHL.com.)
As a whole, the Sabres line-up is built to play a high-energy style of hockey, but not an overly physical one. With the Eichel trade drama looming, this season is loaded with some interesting questions, to include whether or not the young Sabres can keep up with the bigger, more physical teams in the East.
We shall see.
The 2021-22 Sabres season starts Thursday, so,to quote the long-time, former UFC referee, “Big” John McCarthy, “Let’s get it on!”