Which NHL fighter is the best hockey player?

Jeff Gross

Some players are in the NHL for their ability to fight. But which one of them is the best hockey player?

We're nearly a week removed from the opening faceoff line brawl in Vancouver that resulted in Canucks coach John Tortorella earning a 15-day suspension for trying to charge the Flames' locker room and Flames coach Bob Hartley being fined $25,000.

It all started when the Flames sent out their fourth line, including enforcers Brian McGrattan and Kevin Westgarth, to start the game. The Canucks responded in kind by sending out their fourth line, and all hell broke loose as soon as the puck was dropped between Westgarth (a winger who had taken two faceoffs this season and Kevin Bieksa (a defenseman).

Flames interim general manager Brian Burke was quoted in Thursday's Calgary Herald as saying that he is not happy with the fine his coach received because "we all know the Canucks started it." They certainly enabled it and played into it, but it truthfully began when Hartley started a line that rarely -- if ever -- starts a game, and by putting a guy in the faceoff circle that never takes draws.

After the game, Hartley justified the decision by pointing out that the line had scored a goal in their previous game, and for a team that had been struggling to score that was a big deal.

This entire situation, as well as Hartley's justification of the lineup decision, had me thinking: Which current NHL enforcer is the best hockey player? It's no secret that there are players in the league who only made it this far based on their ability and willingness to fight. Their skill is an afterthought when it comes to their roster spot. At least two of those players were on the ice for Calgary on Saturday night (for a couple of minutes, anyway). Some teams want that presence on their roster, whether it be to serve as what they think is protection for their players or to theoretically ignite a spark in an otherwise lifeless game. Whether or not any of that actually happens is up for debate (that's another debate for another day). What's not up for debate is when they are on the ice, for as little as it may be during a game, hockey is still being played, and at that moment the game is in their hands.

Which one is best suited to handle that duty? Which one would you most want to get a semi-regular shift and give you a chance to either control the play for a couple of minutes, or perhaps even chip in the occasional goal.

Is there a player you could start a game with and, with a straight face, say "yeah … this is a good hockey decision."

To start, we first have to find a group of players from which to choose. The requirements for this exercise are a player has to have appeared in at least 50 games over the past three years, average less than 9 minutes of ice-time per game and have accumulated at least 150 penalty minutes.

That search returned 21 players. Here they are with some numbers, including points per game, shots per game, Corsi percentage and time on ice per game.

Player Pts/G Shots/G Corsi % TOI
Rich Clune 0.16 0.76 47.1% 8.9
Shawn Thornton 0.15 1.35 47.7% 8.6
Chris Thorburn 0.14 0.65 45.1% 8.8
Ryan Reaves 0.12 0.52 50.4% 7.2
Zac Rinaldo 0.11 0.68 44.5% 7.6
Brandon Bollig 0.11 1.20 55.6% 8.7
Tom Sestito 0.11 0.41 45.1% 6.4
Tim Jackman 0.10 1.29 52.6% 8.2
Mike Rupp 0.09 0.59 46.8% 7.2
Mike Brown 0.08 0.81 42.9% 8.1
Jared Boll 0.08 0.53 47.2% 8.0
Krys Barch 0.08 0.38 44.8% 6.7
Brian MCGrattan 0.08 0.71 43.9% 5.8
Frazer McLaren 0.08 0.38 37.7% 4.8
George Parros 0.06 0.36 43.8% 6.1
Colton Orr 0.06 0.30 38.0% 5.9
Zenon Konopka 0.05 0.51 40.5% 7.9
Eric Boulton 0.05 0.54 43.4% 6.4
Brad Staubitz 0.05 0.42 37.4% 6.4
Jay Rosehill 0.03 .043 39.4% 5.4
John Scott 0.02 .032 49.5% 6.1

A few thoughts.

  • It's not a surprise to see Shawn Thornton score well. He's been a regular on a Bruins team that's been to two of the past three Stanley Cup Finals, he appeared in 45 of the team's 54 playoff games over that stretch (fighters usually have a hard time cracking playoff rosters, especially on a consistent basis) and he has a 10-goal season in the NHL to his credit. In this category, he probably is the best hockey player. He's a fighter, but he can contribute on the scoreboard.
  • Hits & Hockey

  • St. Louis' Ryan Reaves also seems like he's capable of taking a regular shift with 20 points in 163 games while playing some of the tougher minutes among players on the list. Most of these guys are put into extremely sheltered situations where they start an overwhelming percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone and against players with the same skill set as themselves. And they still get badly outshot. Reaves has one of the lowest offensive zone start percentages on the list and has one of the best Corsi numbers on there.
  • Chicago's Brandon Bollig probably has the fewest fights of any player on here (16 in 95 career regular-season games), including only three this season. He's actually seen an increased workload this season and really improved as a hockey player. Before this year he had zero points in 43 career games. In 52 games with the Blackhawks this season, while mostly playing on a line with Markus Kruger and Ben Smith, he has five goals and five assists.
  • Of the bottom-eight on that list, two of them play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, so they've not only committed two of their 23 roster spots and $1.6 million in cap space over the next two years to fighters, they've done so with two of the guys who do the least to drive play or produce points. Is that really necessary?

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