Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fix the NHL: Tighten Up, but Allow Enforcers

That looks easy.
Brendan: I’m going to assume for the purpose of discussing this proposal that you’re unaware of this particular hockey quirk. To explain: the “enforcer” role is played by someone who essentially sucks at any of the skilled aspects of the sport itself and is employed largely to knock around, fight, or otherwise physically intimidate the opposing team. The idea that a team needs an enforcer to succeed is antiquated and stupid, particularly in an age when the intense physicality of NHL games is being reduced at all costs by rule changes designed to protect the players.

The approach used by the league to go about doing this and its merits can be debated, but my point here is that I actually don’t agree with McIndoe’s proposal to remove the enforcer from the game. I just don’t think that forcibly removing them from team rosters is necessary: I understand the power of incentives and defer to the competitive forces of the league to eliminate the need for a physical player who can barely hold a hockey stick the right way. As common sense can dictate, if the incentives for having an enforcer on the team are decreasing as the rules against overly physical/dangerous play get more rigid, then teams are going to restructure their rosters accordingly going forward. Even accounting for the glacial pace with which sports organizations generally move to adapt to the changing environment (both within their league and beyond), the enforcer will eventually go the way of the dinosaur if the league continues to make the game more friendly and safe for its players.

Patrick: Do not eliminate enforcers. I'm with you: as the league reduces rewards for fighting, players will be forced to develop other skill sets and teams won't pick up guys who only fight. But don't eliminate it, because teams should be free to take different strategies and exploit inefficiencies if they think their current roster and available players creates them. Plus, I'm pretty sure nobody is listed as "Patrick Dougherty, enforcer," on the stat sheet, so enforcing a rule like this would be complicated and subjective.

There is, in fact, mounting evidence that the enforcer is an incredibly useless piece of a team. In fact, they are not a deterrent at all; enforcers are rarely involved in altercations. Of course, this could simply be a product of limited ice time, since enforcers are generally less skilled. Fights rarely happen in high leverage situations, suggesting that teams are more willing to put their effort toward good play rather than violence to gain some sort of edge. Imagine that: coaches already know that putting the most talented players on the ice more often and in the most critical situations gives their team a better chance to win than a goon with no ability and act accordingly. Coaches never act according to logic. To me, this shows that enforcers are already on their way out, with the majority of pointless fights following.

Is this easily instituted at lower levels? Yes. I suspect little leagues are already safer for players because people rightfully want to protect kids, and I'm like, pretty sure that 95% of parents aren't training their kids to be enforcers. Hockey parents can be insane.

Observational Studies co-founders Brendan Porto and Patrick Dougherty are debating the merits of the most popular ideas proposed to improve the NHL. The rules for improvements are laid out here. Send us your own ideas to fix the NHL and we'll share our commentary on a new post.

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