BOSTON — Fighting is declining in the NHL. And when we say declining, we mean record lows.
As of March 10, 1,010 games had been played during the 2015-16 season. Here are the fighting stats so far, per HockeyFights.com.
If the 2015-16 projections above come to fruition, 352 fights would be the lowest single-season total of the last 15 years, excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. In fact, only one of the previous 13 non-lockout seasons had fewer than 400 fights, and that was 2014-15. Having 23.37 percent of games include at least one fight also would be the lowest of the century.
What’s the reason for the low number of fights? NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had an interesting answer Friday when discussing the topic at the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
“As I’ve constantly said, the way the game is played evolves, by the people who are playing it and coaching it and managing it,” Bettman said. “What I think has happened, is over time, most teams have concluded that because the game is so competitive, they want four lines of players who can play, that are skillful, and they’re not looking for the specialty players anymore … I think teams have gotten more concerned with playing good defense and scoring goals than anything else.”
Bettman’s point about teams wanting four quality lines is spot on. The current pace and style of the NHL game favors players who have speed and skill, and those attributes rarely are found in the typical enforcer.
Playing a puck possession game, which more and more teams are doing and is easier to execute with skilled players on all four lines, arguably is the best way to win the Stanley Cup. More than 80 percent of the top 10 teams in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage from 2006 through 2015 made the playoffs.
Another factor contributing to the decline in fighting is the visor rule that was put into effect starting in 2013-14. All players entering the NHL must wear a visor during gameplay, even when players drop the gloves and decide to fight. Players with NHL experience before 2013-14 can choose not to wear one, but fighting someone with a visor and the risk of hurting your hand on the shield as a result is not an ideal situation.
But perhaps the primary reason for why fighting totals are down is the latest research on concussions and the impact they have on players during their careers as well as retirement. We know a lot more in 2016 about how repeated blows to the head can lead to medical problems later in life than we did in 2000.
Player safety is the most important aspect of fighting right now, and because of that, it’s unlikely to see the downward trend involving the number of fights over a season and in individual games climb back up to previous levels.
Players at the youth levels should take note, too, because making it to the NHL with your fists probably isn’t possible anymore.
“I would think (young players) should focus on stick handling and skating because that’s where the future of the game is and is going,” Bettman said. “How many of the so-called ‘fighters’ are now in the minor leagues? You watch the game, as everybody does, fighting is at its lowest point. It doesn’t appear to be a growth profession.”
Thumbnail photo courtesy of MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
Thumbnail photo via 2016 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference