When once, enforcers were a staple in a hockey team’s lineup, today, they’re a dying breed. More and more teams are starting to cast aside their tough, five-minutes-a-night guys in favour of players who can take a regular shift, and be counted on to do a little more than provide security and intimidation.
That’s not to say big players aren’t valued. That will never be the case. But in the changing landscape of the NHL, it’s not good enough to simply be big anymore. You need to add something else to the table to keep your spot.
As enforcers start to depart from the league in favour of the minors, and even overseas – remember Kevin Westgarth? He ended up in he EIHL – more and more teams are following each others’ leads.
Now, the Flames are one of those teams.
A brief history
Pick a season in Flames history, any season, and you’re going to find at least one enforcer on that roster. So in the interest of something resembling brevity, let’s take a look at just the five most recent Flames seasons (because five is a nice number), and who played for those teams.
The 2010-11 roster: Tim Jackman (82 games played, 12 fights), Tom Kostopoulos (59 games for the Flames after being traded to Calgary, four fights), Stefan Meyer (16 games, three fights), and Raitis Ivanans (one game, one fight).
These guys weren’t the only players to fight for the Flames that season, but they were the more limited players to record a fight (for example, Mark Giordano fought three times that season, but you don’t compare Giordano to Kostopoulos with a straight face).
Ivanans was concussed in his one fight, and his season over, and Meyer was out of the NHL by November. Between the two, Ivanans was the only actual goon, whereas Meyer was just a fringe player.
Then there’s Kostopoulos and Jackman. They were part of a rather fun fourth line, and had more to bring to the ice than just goonery. Kostopoulos was actually a pretty decent contributor for what was asked of him (14 points, and 12:38 a game). And that was the year Jackman randomly had 10 goals, but averaged just 9:49 a night. He was a goon – I mean, 12 fights – but he was a goon who had an exceptional season.
The 2011-12 roster: Tim Jackman (75 games played, 14 fights), Tom Kostopoulos (81 games played, five fights), Guillaume Desbiens (10 games, five fights) – and also, Pierre-Luc Letourneau Leblond (three games, one game misconduct) and Raitis Ivanans (one game) were there.
Ivanans and PL3 didn’t exactly contribute anything, but there’s no doubt that they’re goons. Desbiens averaged one fight every two games, which is nuts, if you think about it – dude did nothing else. Kostopoulos looks reasonable amidst this group, while Jackman upped the ante to 14 fights – and downed the ante to one goal.
The 2013 roster: Tim Jackman (42 games played, eight fights), Steve Begin (36 games played, four fights), and Brian McGrattan (19 games for the Flames after being traded to Calgary, three fights).
Begin put up eight points, making him the highest scorer of this group – and also, really, not what one would consider an enforcer at all. McGrattan fought in his very first game back (salute, anyone?), and another two times over just the few remaining games of the season. And by this point, any thoughts of Jackman’s 10 goal season could be firmly extinguished, and the dude probably just needed to settle down already. Thirty-four fights in three seasons is a bit much.
The 2013-14 roster: Brian McGrattan (76 games played, 11 fights), Kevin Westgarth (36 games for the Flames after being traded to Calgary, six fights), Tim Jackman (10 games for the Flames before being traded to Anaheim, two fights), Shane O’Brien (45 games for the Flames before being waived, two fights), Lane MacDermid (one game, one fight) – and also Bryce Van Brabant was signed and present (six games, one high-sticking call).
To put Van Brabant in perspective, in his final college season, he had 113 penalty minutes (and he played 115 college games total). MacDermid only dressed once, and retired soon after, having lost his passion for the game – and when you look at his numbers, it’s clear his role wasn’t going to extend much beyond enforcing. O’Brien… existed, and put up a lot of penalty minutes before finally being sent away.
With McGrattan around, Jackman became redundant; with only McGrattan around, Brian Burke decided the Flames weren’t tough enough, and sought out Westgarth, who was also redundant. But boy, that pair fought a lot (and made the fourth line basically useless).
The 2014-15 roster: Brandon Bollig (62 games played, seven fights), Deryk Engelland (76 games played, seven fights) – and also Brian McGrattan was there (eight games before being waived, one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, one interference call).
Bollig and Engelland were two of the Flames’ offseason acquisitions, effectively making McGrattan redundant and resulting in the end of his time as a Flame. Bollig and Engelland fought a fair amount and didn’t do much else – although it should be noted you typically don’t find enforcers on teams’ defences, and Engelland did get to play a quarter of the season in the top four… but if we’re being honest with ourselves, he’s closer to a goon than a top four defender.
Enforcers came and went, with a couple – Jackman and McGrattan especially – sticking around for a while yet, being the Flames’ main facepunching guys over the past five seasons.
There were a lot fewer in 2013 and 2014-15, though. The 2013 season just had two actual enforcer types, and 2013-14 followed that up with some major overreacting, acquiring goons left and right (including having a line consisting of goons on the left and right wings).
Does the 2015-16 follow up the 2014-15 season in a similar way? In all likelihood, no. While the Flames shed some of their muscle in 2014-15, they did add a little more, but in the form of guys who could handle a few more minutes.
But for 2015-16, the Flames have way too many guys fighting for spots. The 2014-15 team had room to add Bollig and Engelland. The 2015-16 team, as it’s shaping up, does not.
The Flames really just have two options for enforcer-types for their 2015-16 roster: Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland, two players with two years remaining on their respective deals.
Bollig and Engelland will, in all likelihood, remain members of the Flames for the next two seasons, in some capacity. They may not be on the ice, but if not, they’ll be in the pressbox; or potentially buried in the AHL, in which, hey, they’re still members of the organization.
Nobody else present really fits the criteria. Lance Bouma is a tough, physical player who will fight, as is Micheal Ferland; neither can be considered a goon, as they have more to offer: points, shot blocks, what have you. They’re more versatile than the Bolligs or McGrattans of the hockey world, so while they may meet that physical quotient, they’ll be able to play more than five minutes a game. (They’re exactly the type of player the NHL in looking towards in place of goons: big, and with more than one skill.)
Bryce Van Brabant isn’t close to cracking the NHL roster, and he’s the next closest thing the Flames have to an enforcer type. There’s always the chance for a free agent signing, but with 46 (47 once Ferland signs) players under contract, Calgary really doesn’t have room for someone new who doesn’t add much – and they definitely don’t have room for even more battles in camp. As it stands, figuring out the upcoming roster is already a struggle.
So if the Flames do end up with enforcers in the lineup, in all likelihood, it’s going to be the two guys they acquired and played throughout the past season: Bollig and Engelland. One forward, one defenceman, and nobody else.
Where do they fit?
It’s really, really hard to rationalize or justify a place for Bollig in the lineup.
The Flames have too many forwards. Of the group of Michael Frolik, David Jones, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Backlund, Mason Raymond, Matt Stajan, Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Paul Byron, Drew Shore, Markus Granlund, Micheal Ferland, and Sam Bennett, which five do you move out of the way for Bollig?
Even if you can name one or two players you’d rather see Bollig in over – perhaps the underachieving Raymond, or the not-quite-ready Granlund – there aren’t five players on that list you sacrifice for Bollig.
There is, quite simply, zero room for him in the regular on-ice lineup. He doesn’t fit. His presence can no longer be justified. He could be a pressbox staple – the team is going to have that, after all – but there aren’t five players on that list you can displace in order to give Bollig a regular shift.
That leaves the hope to keep an enforcer in the Flames’ lineup all up to Engelland.
On defence, the Flames will have Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, maaaaybe probably not Ladislav Smid, Tyler Wotherspoon, and Jakub Nakladal battling it out, along with Engelland. The first five in that list aren’t going anywhere, which leaves a battle open for three remaining spots.
Engelland’s competition is an LTIR candidate, and two rookies who still need to prove themselves. That’s a competition he can win; after all, he was selected, without hesitation, to step into the top four when Giordano went down, and this was a decision never revised.
If the Flames do end up with an enforcer in the lineup this season, it’ll be a sixth defenceman, and nobody else – and even his spot isn’t guaranteed.
It’s a far cry from the years upon years upon years of Calgary carrying a traditional enforcer (or even several). It’s also a step that’s been long-needed as the Flames work through their rebuild, and build a much more balanced roster.