On the weekend, there were a few things that got me wondering:
First, was this piece by Sarah McLellan about Coyotes LW Paul Bissonnette, who is hoping to expand his role beyond part-time fourth-line muscle.
Among players with at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this season, Bissonnette ranks seventh in points per 60 minutes, which may be a small-sample fluke, but there's a lot of room between Bissonnette's current role and that of a regular in the lineup.
The Coyotes have made sure to put Bissonnette in situations where he can succeed, with offensive zone starts and relatively low quality of competition, but he's generated positive possession numbers over the past three seasons, enough to think that he might warrant consideration for more time. Trouble is, with the Coyotes life-and-death to make the playoffs, they don't seem inclined to give him that opportunity right now.
The second thing that caught my attention was Flyers tough guy Jay Rosehill scoring a pretty nifty goal against the Bruins.
And third, that was against the Bruins, a team that is sort of the prototype for the fighting teams, ranking second in the league with 46 fighting majors this season. The Bruins have Milan Lucic, a first-line winger who fights; Jarome Iginla, a first-line winger who fights; and Shawn Thornton, a fourth-line winger who fights and gets regular ice time (8:32 per game this year and played 22 playoff games last year). Injured D Adam McQuaid and rookie D Kevan Miller are also a couple of tough customers who play third pair minutes for the Bruins.
There's also been a lot of talk this year about Toronto's fourth line which, for a time, included both Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, and the relative ineffectiveness of that fourth line seemed to cause issues higher up the depth chart. Figuring out playing time for a line that employs two enforcers that don't have enough hockey skills to keep up is, at the very least, challenging.
Finally, with the playoffs around the corner, the time will come when teams make hard lineup decisions and, in many cases, that means the designated enforcer goes to the press box. If he can play a bit, though, that can tilt the decision.
So, all of this wondering led me to try and find out which of the league's fighters are actually doing enough to warrant regular ice time; basically, who can play?
One look at hockeyfights.com provided a list of 75 players that might be considered fighters (there are probably a few more that could have been included), but it was basically every player involved in at least five fights this season, plus a select few that had four and come with a reputation/track record (Steve Ott, Steve Downie, John Scott, Troy Bodie) and then Bissonnette, who has fought only three times in 37 games.
There is an obvious top tier, which includes Iginla (with his most fights since 2009-2010), Lucic and Philadelphia's Wayne Simmonds, forwards that play on scoring lines, but have an aggressive side that comes out on occasion. They might as well be excluded from the examination because, even with zero fights, they clearly produce enough offensively to play prominent roles on their respective teams.
Teams can use tough guys in lower-leverage situations. As Tyler Dellow pointed out a couple of weeks ago, teams can be judicious in their use of their tough guys, which mitigates their liability, but if the tough guys can't play a lick, it makes it increasingly difficult to be judicious.
It should be noted that not all fights, and fighters are created equally. There are heavyweights, who tend to only fight other heavyweights; there are agitators who end up fighting because they're being called to task for one of (likely) many transgressions; and there are players who, battling for a spot in the lineup or consistent playing time, are willing to use that as one more reason for the team to keep them in the lineup.
What makes a fighter useful enough to handle a regular fourth-line shift?
Players that have at least 47% Corsi is a decent place to start. From a Dellow post last year, he determined averages for first, second, third and fourth-line players. Sure, there's some room for variance, but if the player is going to be used as more than as a spare part, he can't spend all of his shifts scrambling in the defensive zone. Among the 75 listed below, nearly half (36) had a Corsi over 47%. 23 were at 50.0% or better.
Players that have at least an even Relative Corsi. From the list below, that includes only 15 of the 75 players, but that makes sense. Fourth-liners are unlikely to have better possession stats than players higher on the depth chart.
There are a dozen players that have both a 50% Corsi and at least a break-even relative Corsi (actually, it's 10, but Lucic and Iginla are just below that threshold.)
If we can take the position that a fighter isn't likely to be the one driving his team's possession numbers, then if they aren't significantly worse than their teammates, that at least puts them in consideration for a regular role. There are obvious exceptions to this case too, particularly when it comes to the Bruins, where the Patrice Bergeron line is so dominant that the likes of Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton have no hope of being close in terms of relative Corsi.
Really, if a player fits in a team's top nine, there's not much question whether he's a useful player. Some are more useful than others, of course, but it's not as if the league is overrun by third line forwards that don't even warrant a spot in the league.
Maybe this should table should count as an appreciation for Patrick Maroon, the suddenly-valuable winger for the Ducks. While one of the league's most active fighters, with 13, he's a strong possession player (54.8%) who, like most Ducks, has spent time on the wing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but he's been more productive recently while playing with Mathieu Perreault and Kyle Palmieri. Maroon has 12 points (3 G, 9 A) in his past 15 games, a marked improvement over 17 points in his first 59 career games.
Maroon's a big guy (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) who paid his dues in the minors, playing 353 AHL games, but he's also been more than merely a puncher, scoring 58 goals and 124 points in 139 games over the previous two AHL seasons. It's been a long road since he was drafted in the sixth round by Philadelphia in 2007, but he's starting to pay dividends for the Ducks.
Take what you will from the data below and there is surely some debate over some of these players being on the bubble in terms of value, but when more and more tangible measures are available for players, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify a player's spot in the lineup for intangible benefits.
Possession stats come from the indispensable www.extraskater.com