The fight game isn’t dead, and perhaps it will linger for decades, but in the overall scheme of NHL entertainment it has been reduced to a bug rather than a feature.
By the looks of it, the bug is in the throes of extermination. Bruins fans need only look at the construct of the current Black and Gold roster for proof. Nope, Shawn Thornton (career penalty minutes: 1,103) is not walking down that runway, folks.
True, a few guys on the Boston roster are perfectly capable of handling themselves, none better than team captain Zdeno Chara, but it is no longer an essential part of the club’s DNA or marketing approach — one, admittedly, that Causeway Street customers embraced lovingly for decades. A few still pine for the smell of blood that permeated the old Garden, the way old North Enders swear they can still smell the molasses from the great flood of 1919.
But have heart, Bruins fans, it’s not just your favorite team that has all but given up the sweet science sur glace.
Per stats provided by the Elias Sports Bureau, fighting is down across the league by nearly two-thirds over the last 10-plus seasons, with coaches and GMs no longer compelled to fill out rosters with enforcers and policemen. In a game now framed and defined by speed and skill, those players have been rendered as forgotten as wooden sticks and leather skates.
Shade your eyes, Terry O’Reilly and Milan Lucic fans, here are the numbers, as measured by fighting majors (five minutes each) per game over the last 10 seasons:
2017-18 — 0.44; 2016-17 — 0.61; 2015-16 — 0.56; 2014-15 — 0.63; 2013-14 — 0.76; 2012-13 — 0.96; 2011-12 — 0.89; 2010-11 — 1.04; 2009-10 — 1.16; 2008-09 — 1.19.
As of the middle of this past week, slightly more than halfway through the 2018-19 season, the number was down again, to 0.38 fighting majors per game. Given that it typically takes two to tango, the current 1,271-game season will produce 482 fighting majors, or a mere 241 fights. That works out to about 16 fights per team over the course of the season. If you’re paying those high ticket prices in hopes of witnessing a fight, you might want to consider waiting for the UFC to make its way back to the Garden.
Once known for its bare knuckles, bloodbaths, and donnybrooks, the NHL of today requires courage of a different kind from its players. Because the speed has been ratcheted so high, hits are more brutalizing than ever, too often leading to injuries, including concussions — seemingly a rarity during the sport’s rock ’em, sock ’em era. The Bruins already this season have seen David Backes, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, and rookie Urho Vaakanainen lose time to concussions — a pace nearly in lockstep with the rate of fighting majors.
No doubt there were concussions decades ago, too, often the product of fights, but players weren’t as educated about symptoms and care. Many concussions went unreported, players fearing time out of the lineup ultimately would lead to shorter money in their next contract or no job at all. Today’s players are far more aware and educated about reporting symptoms and taking the time necessary to heal from these brain injuries, all the easier to do in an industry now with an annual payroll in excess of $2 billion and with all contracts guaranteed.
As the fights diminish, what other changes might we see in the game beyond the disappearance of hired guns on the bench? It’s guesswork, of course, but officiating is something to consider, particularly the potential inclusion of females donning black and white stripes.
Sarah Thomas, 46, on Sunday will become the first female official to work an NFL playoff game when she takes the field at Gillette Stadium as part of the crew for the Patriots vs. Chargers. Thomas in 2015 became the first female to work the NFL sidelines. Her ascension to postseason duty after three seasons is a tribute to her talent and hard work and no small triumph for inclusion.
How soon for a female on-ice official to work in the NHL? Frankly, there’s nothing stopping a woman from being hired now as a referee, particularly in a two-referee system in which she would not be as challenged to match the demanding skating pace for 60 minutes or more. There are many fine, strong female skaters, but the explosive speed of NHL players is hard for many male officials to track. The two-ref system tips the scale in favor of a woman getting the gig.
Working the lines gets trickier, because linesmen, and not referees, are still required to break up fights, which sometimes requires wrapping up the pugilists. Awkward. Frankly, also too much risk. Not only would a female linesman likely be at greater risk of being hurt than most, if not all, of her male co-workers, but imagine the PR nightmare if a player landed an errant punch, be it to a female linesman’s head or body. Really bad look. One that would run on a continuous loop on the national sports networks.
Once fighting is gone entirely, the NHL would be prime ice for women to do both jobs. At the rate it’s disappearing, that day could come sooner than we ever might have imagined.
Rask will be busy in crunch time
Sounds like we’ll see more of Tuukka Rask down the stretch. Rask recorded his 42nd career shutout in Tuesday’s 4-0 whitewash of the Wild, his 31st since taking over full-time net duties for the Bruins in 2012-13. Over that stretch, only Marc-Andre Fleury (32), now among the sainted Golden Knights, has more shutouts.
Headed into Saturday’s game in Toronto, Rask was riding a season-best four-game winning streak and looked like the goaltender (now 12-8-2) who again could post a 30-win season, what would be the sixth straight for the 31-year-old Finn. The win over the Wild was the 250th of his career. “Yeah, 250 more to go, I guess,” said Rask. “I’ve been lucky enough to be part of good teams, and that’s pretty much what it comes down to, I think. Fortunate to play here.”
Now with 37 games remaining in the Bruins’ regular season, and his game finally on the uptick after a spotty first half, Rask likely will make 25 starts or more on the lead up to the playoffs. Despite the perennial talk radio show infatuation with the resident Causeway backup (impressive upgrade this season with Jaroslav Halak), Rask remains the club’s No. 1 goaltender — as the numbers reflect since taking over the top job after the departure of Tim Thomas.
Consider Rask’s numbers since 2012-13 (all stats through his Tuesday night shutout):
Games played: T1. Rask, Braden Holtby (369).
Wins: 1. Holtby (227); T2. Rask, Fleury (203).
GAA: 1. Rask (2.28); 2. Jonathan Quick (2.30).
Save percentage: 1. John Gibson (.923); T2: Rask, Sergei Bobrovsky (.921).
Shutouts: 1. Fleury (32). T2. Rask, Holtby (31).
Quick summation: Rask is first or second in all categories these past 6½ seasons.
“The plan’s been thrown out the window a long time ago, in terms of what may have been in place before the season,” said Rask, noting how the coaching staff adjusted the workload from the template that was put in place for both goalies in October. “I think we just go game by game and try to keep both of us going. I think both of us are playing solid hockey, so it’s a matter of keeping both of us fresh. And you never know come playoff time, maybe we will keep that going then. If you have two good goalies going throughout the season, why not the playoffs, too?”
If he were to land the lion’s share of the work over these final 12 weeks, Rask sounds prepared. “Yeah, sure, I pretty much feel like the season hasn’t started yet,” he said, “because that’s how fresh I feel, I guess, so good sign.”
Based on what Bruce Cassidy had to say following Tuesday night’s win, it sounds as if Rask will get roughly two out of every three starts the rest of the way.
“Yes, Tuukka’s now earning, I don’t want to say [earning] the nets back, I don’t think that’s the appropriate term,” said the coach. “But more starts, and we’ll see how he runs with it.”
DeSmith reborn with Penguins
The Penguins have been blistering hot of late, including a 14-3-1 stretch that bridged the new year, with the success due in no small part to — no surprise — sparkling netminding.
Works every time, doesn’t it? Or at least most of the time.
Matt Murray is back leading the way in the Penguins’ net, and he has partnered with ex-UNH tender Casey DeSmith, from Rochester, N.H., who was spectacular Dec. 14 when he turned back 48 shots in a 5-3 win over the Bruins.
It has been quite a career recovery for DeSmith, 27, who spent a year out of the game after getting tossed off the Wildcats following an incident in which he was accused of being drunk and assaulting a woman on the Durham campus in August 2014. DeSmith ultimately avoided jail time but was ordered by the court to undergo drug and alcohol counseling, serve 40 hours of community service, and a year’s probation.
But his college playing career was kaput.
“Our student-athletes here at UNH are held to a higher standard than the general student body,” said then-head coach Dick Umile.
DeSmith, after being denied his 2014-15 senior season, returned to hockey the next season and spent time with ECHL Wheeling and AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and then another full season at W-B/S before finally being signed by the Penguins in July 2017.
He spent most of last season in the minors, but found his way to Mike Sullivan’s varsity when Murray was injured and he outperformed Penguins draft pick Tristan Jarry, chosen in the second round in 2013, to suit up as Murray’s partner in the playoffs.
Key to DeSmith being able to resurrect his career and ultimately find his way to the NHL: ex-UNH goalie coach Mike Buckley. DeSmith worked a year under Buckley’s tutelage at UNH and it was Buckley who encouraged the Penguins to bring him aboard in Wheeling as an undrafted free agent when Buckley was a development coach. Without Buckley advocating for him, DeSmith easily could have fallen off the radar, his career tossed away after the arrest on the UNH campus.
Nylander must tune out noise
The Maple Leafs have been OK, not great, and William Nylander substantially less than that in the wake of the holdout forward finally coming to contract terms on Dec. 1. He settled at the 11th hour for a whopping six years/$45 million, leaving him second only to John Tavares on the Blue and White payroll — a number surely to be surpassed in the offseason, if not sooner, when Auston Matthews re-ups.
The Leafs were pushing the Lightning for the top spot in the East when Nylander finally came to terms. As the weekend approached, they were still in second, but a distant 12 points behind Tampa and knotted with the Capitals at 56 points, with the Bruins and Penguins each with 54.
Meanwhile, Nylander stood 1-2—3 through 14 games, a stunning drop in a production rate that saw him deliver 61 points each of the past two seasons.
Recent words of advice for Nylander from Leafs coach Mike Babcock: unplug from the constant media buzz in Toronto and turn the TV to the Country Music Channel, or maybe one of the wildlife stations.
“They never talk about hockey once,” said Babcock, as reported by Sportnet’s Shawn McKenzie. “Honest to God, it’s unbelievable — beautiful animals, mountains, hiking, fishing. It’s a thing of beauty.”
Oh, to be at Nylander’s side when he flips on the National Geographic Channel, only to see a giant, growling brown bear . . . albeit with a Spoked-B on his chest.
After an initial surge (9-2-2) under new coach Ken Hitchcock, the Oilers again lapsed into critical care mode, with backline acquisitions Brandon Manning and Alex Petrovic doing little to help cover up the recent losses of Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell. A 2-8-0 stretch again had the Oil drifting out of the playoff picture and speculation renewed that GM Peter Chiarelli won’t survive an inevitable postseason reorganization . . . Now, some six weeks to go to the NHL’s February trade deadline and the Bruins still need help up front. Don’t discount Daniel Winnik, the ex-UNH standout who performed well here during his September PTO and then headed to the Swiss League. This past week, through 23 games with Geneva, he stood 1-14—15. A veteran of 798 NHL games, Winnik turns 34 on March 6. Lee Stempniak, who also came to camp on a PTO, is another possibility. Unable to land a contract, he has joined the Bruins for most of their Brighton workouts throughout the season . . . Only a half-dozen players from last June’s draft (total 217 draftees) have played in the NHL this season and three of them, including No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo) are bona fide candidates for Rookie of the Year. The others: Brady Tkachuk (4/Ottawa) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (3/Montreal). The pick here: Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson (5/Vancouver/2017). He missed a few games early in the season, but as the weekend approached he was delivering at a better-than-point-per-game pop (38 games: 22-20—42) . . . A gold medal fresh around his neck from Team Finland’s triumph in World Junior Championship, Urho Vaakanainen reported to AHL Providence in time to join the WannaB’s for their 3-in-3 this weekend against Hartford and Springfield. The set wraps up Sunday vs. the Thunderbirds, a 3:05 p.m. faceoff at the Dunk . . . Hot takes that had the Los Angeles Kings considering deals for franchise defenseman Drew Doughty have cooled off. Doughty next season begins a new deal that will pay him $88 million over eight seasons, the same per annum payout Tavares landed in Toronto as a UFA last July. It’s all water over the bow now, but imagine what the Islanders could have received if they agreed to sign him on the precondition they then would deal him to the Leafs? . . . Forty years ago last week, Bobby Orr raised his No. 4 to the Garden rafters. No. 4’s run here, including two Cups, encompassed 631 regular-season games. On the current roster, Patrice Bergeron (992), Zdeno Chara (919), David Krejci (814), and Brad Marchand (646) all have outdistanced the legend for regular-season games in Black and Gold. Bergeron, by the way, remains on track to play Game No. 1,000 at the Garden on Feb. 5 vs. the Islanders . . . The Garden next season will unveil a new “Rafters” club (see: www.tdgarden.com/premium-seating/rafters) tucked away on the expansive ninth floor, the same level (a.k.a. The Promenade) where the hockey press box has been housed since the building opened nearly a quarter-century ago. Garden officials have yet to announce pricing. Rumors that patrons first must pass a typing test remain unconfirmed.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.