Longtime Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil officially retired from the NHL after 15 seasons Thursday. He leaves behind a legacy of physical play that endeared him to fans before the phasing out of enforcers across the league.
The NHL has changed a lot since Neil made his debut in 2001, when having a physical brawler on your fourth line was a common tactic. There are fewer players like that in the league than ever now, the result of years of evolution toward a faster, more skilled game.
And as Neil retires, you can see plainly in the record books how he’ll stand out. The forward had been the NHL’s active leader in penalty minutes by over 700. Now that he’s moving on from his playing days, there aren’t going to be many players able to challenge his 2,522 PIM in 1,026 games, which is 20th all-time.
The new active PIM leader is Zdeno Chara, who has recorded 1,806 penalty minutes since 1997. There are only 11 other players in the current NHL with more than 1,000. And unlike during the late 1990s, when fights with big penalties were a regular occurrence, nobody really racks up penalty minutes like that anymore.
Here’s a look at PIM leaders for the past 30 years, via Hockey-Reference.
Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, penalty leaders regularly clocked in the high 300s or even past 400. Last season, Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki led the NHL with 154 penalty minutes. This season, Penguins forward Ryan Reaves is on pace to lead the league with 192. The last time someone hit 200 PIM in a season was Steve Downie with 238 in 2014-15.
Even if you figured an effective physical player could consistently hit 200 PIM in a season, they’d need to play at least a dozen years before having any shot at matching Neil’s total. That’s a tall ask in a league where teams increasingly move away from using players whose biggest contributions are finished checks.
Reaves, who is in his eighth season, would need to play another 18 seasons at his current pace to reach Neil.
Given how much the NHL has changed over the decades, there are a lot of numbers that seem unattainable. In the current league, nobody will ever match Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals or 215 points. His 2,857 career points is a total so ridiculous that it’s up there with Cy Young’s 511 wins, Cal Ripken’s 2,362 consecutive games played, and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.
But another way the NHL has evolved is that players are recording fewer penalty minutes as a result of fewer fights. And as a result of that, Chris Neil may have a place in the record books for a long time.