One thing everyone can agree about in the fighting debate: fisticuffs aren’t gone yet. Hockey is certainly trending that way, but fights still happen for now. So when they do, which team is most heavily armed to win a battle royale on a nightly basis? We set out to crown the best overall tough-guy team in the NHL.
Our data source was hockeyfights.com, which has documented decades of information. Players earn wins, losses and draws based on fan votes. With the help of our dedicated interns, Craig Hagerman and Namish Modi, we compiled the career record of every player who’s played a game this season, through the second week of November. Fights that didn’t have any votes were deemed no contest, as the sample size was large enough for us to throw them out. We included regular season scraps but also pre-season and post-season ones, because fights are fights, no matter when they happen. Even if you’re a star player shaking off summer rust, you don’t ease up in the pre-season when you’re protecting your own face.
We then summed the total records of the players on each active NHL roster to produce an aggregate record, which was converted to a points percentage. We awarded two points for a win and one point for a draw. At this stage in the calculations, we realized our overall team rankings skewed too heavily toward winning fights and not enough toward experience. Which enforcer would you fear more: a guy with two fights and two wins or a guy with 100 wins and 60 losses? So we multiplied our team points percentages by their players’ total number of fights to create a final score that combined fight proficiency with fight frequency.
We believe the rankings on the pages to follow accurately reflect the NHL’s glove-dropping hierarchy. The likes of San Jose and Boston are loaded with pugilists and finished high, whereas last-place Detroit throws punches as often as Gandhi did.
TEAM FIGHTER RANKING RESULTS
1. San Jose
10. New Jersey
11. N.Y. Islanders
14. St. Louis
22. N.Y. Rangers
24. Los Angeles
29. Tampa Bay
CASE STUDY NO. 1: SAN JOSE SHARKS (best overall team)
The San Jose Sharks top our fighter rankings because of their bloody knuckles in the present and future, not the past.
The Sharks were a rugged enough team in recent years. Plenty of their skill players, from Joe Pavelski to Brent Burns, played with an edge. But coach Todd McLellan’s group was always disciplined. The Sharks took the third-fewest penalties in the NHL in 2011-12, the seventh-fewest the next season and the fewest last season. Through their first 17 games of 2014-15, they took the seventh most penalties and led the league in fighting majors after finishing 17th last season and 24th the year prior.
A key reason for the change is 6-foot-8 John Scott, a bouncer on skates with 34 regular season fights and three goals in 242 games. That’s a goal every 11 fights or so.
“John’s presence alone can act as a deterrent and help keep teams and opposing players honest,” GM Doug Wilson told reporters after the signing.
That may well be true. Per hockeyfights.com, Scott’s career fighting record, including pre-season games, is 33-4-2, with one no contest. Anyone who dares challenge him weathers a storm of knuckle sandwiches from a towering perch. And Scott’s presence isn’t the only reason San Jose rules the fighting pool. Adam Burish, Andrew Desjardins and Mike Brown (currently in the American League) have made names for themselves as cruiserweights. Desjardins in particular has become a lineup fixture.
But has the increased machismo come at a cost? Last season, among skaters with at least 200 minutes of ice time, Scott ranked 611th out of 615 skaters with a Corsi Close rating of 37.8. That number partially reflects him spending 2013-14 as a lowly Buffalo Sabre, but what’s the excuse this season? Scott is 523rd. Adam Burish is 644th. Desjardins? 620th. And puckalytics.com tells us the Sharks, who sputtered to an 8-7-2 record through mid November (as of this article's press date), sunk to 12th as a team in Corsi Close after finishing fifth last season.
These Sharks are scary to trade punches with, but an enforcer’s skill set isn’t conducive to possessing the puck, creating chances and winning.
CASE STUDY NO. 2: NEW JERSEY DEVILS(best winning percentage)
Talk about making every punch count. The New Jersey Devils roster is 20th in total experience on the THN fight ranking chart but finishes 10th in our overall rating. The reason: quality over quantity. The Devils have by far the best success rate in fisticuffs, amassing an amazing 91-37-27 record and .674 points percentage.
Most of New Jersey’s bloody victories belong to just two men: Ryane Clowe and Jordin Tootoo. Clowe checks in at 37-6-9. He’s fought and beaten some brutes, including Shane O’Brien, Krys Barch, Shawn Thornton, Jared Boll and Brandon Prust. Clowe is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds. He hasn’t dropped the mitts as much since joining New Jersey as a free agent in 2013, but he still doesn’t pick his spots. Since then he’s battled Tanner Glass, Matt Carkner, Mike Weber, Roman Polak and Milan Lucic, losing only to Lucic (which is highly forgivable). It remains to be seen if Clowe’s fighting days end soon, however, as he’s battled concussions in recent years and sustained another one in November.
Tootoo lacks Clowe’s size at just 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, but he’s one of the best pure fighters around at 37-13-9. He typically fights fellow tough guys within his weight class, but he occasionally reaches for the stars and beats behemoths like Tom Sestito. Tootoo adds a mean streak to a Devils team that had 10 fighting majors all of last season, the 28th-most in the NHL.
While Clowe and Tootoo are extremely tough customers, they skew the record of an otherwise peaceful Devils operation. In a team-versus-team rumble, would you rather have Clowe and Tootoo or Boston’s group of Lucic, Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid and Gregory Campbell? That’s why factoring total team fight experience, not just fighting success, into our rankings was important.
CASE STUDY NO. 3: MINNESOTA WILD (worst winning percentage)
Some NHL GMs champion fighting as a deterrent to cheap shots. The Minnesota Wild, however, might see fighting as a deterrent to, well, more fighting. Their pugilists’ history suggests they just aren’t very good at it.
Per hockeyfights.com, the collective career fighting record of everyone to play a game for them in 2014-15 is 22-68-47, good for a .332 points percentage. No other team finished worse than .400. So who are the human punching bags burying Minnesota in the heavyweight rankings?
Sorry to name names, but one is Ryan Carter, who is just 2-17-5 for his career. What’s the secret to his (lack of) success? He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds but often takes on bigger competition. Case in point: last season, while still a Devil, Carter threw down with mighty Marcus Foligno of Buffalo, who clocks in at 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds. Foligno dropped Carter with a devastating overhand right. Not only was Carter’s bell rung, he injured his knee while falling to the ice and missed five weeks.
Keith Ballard (8-18-7) and Stephane Veilleux (2-7-10) also weigh down Minnesota’s record. Ballard is undersized at 5-foot-11 and plays a chippy game that agitates bigger forwards into challenging him. Corey Perry, Todd Bertuzzi and James Neal have won recent bouts against Ballard. Veilleux simply bites off more than he can chew, having taken on and lost to heavy hitters like Ryan White, Dion Phaneuf and Denis Gauthier over his career.
Off-season movement skewed the Wild’s results slightly. Clayton Stoner and his respectable 13-10-8 mark now belong to the Anaheim Ducks. Meanwhile, removing Carter’s record from the books is a big reason why New Jersey finished with by far the best fighting points percentage.
Minnesota didn’t end up last in our rankings, as it earned bonus points for courage, having almost three times as many bouts as last-place finisher Detroit.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin