In Part 1 of this two-part look at the future of fighting in the Vancouver Canucks organization, we reached some rather illuminating conclusions.
The team fought only 13 times each in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons. This marked a rapid decline in those totals from previous seasons, which was in line with—but slightly steeper than—the overall decline in fighting in the National Hockey League.
While the numbers are inarguably down when it comes to fighting, less concrete is the argument that fighting’s relevance is also rapidly decreasing. The Canucks’ fightcard—as provided by our friends at HockeyFights.com—certainly suggests that dropping the gloves is no longer directly tied to the success of the franchise, but proving such a notion is next to impossible.
With that being said, we’re about to do our darnedest to assess whether fighting truly has a future in the NHL—and, more specifically, in the Canucks organization moving forward.
Pugilistic Prowess In 2019/20
As mentioned in Part 1, Vancouver lost some serious fistic ability during the 2018/19 seasons when they traded away both Erik Gudbranson and Darren Archibald—probably the two most frequent and capable scrappers in the organization. With those two gone, the list of current Canucks still willing to dish the mitts is a short one—but there remain a few notable pugilists to discuss.
The Big Guy’s time with the Canucks was limited last season, but he still managed to make quite an impression—particularly on the face of San Jose’s Barclay Goodrow. MacEwen is a borderline heavyweight who has more than enough skill to hold down a spot on the fourth line, so expect him to be the team’s go-to brawler in 2019/20.
Roussel is primarily an agitator, but he’s willing to fight on occasion—when the situation benefits him and his team. Roussel only drops the gloves on his own terms, and he’s happy to eat punches without retaliating if he thinks he can earn the Canucks a powerplay. He’s not the most capable puncher out there, but he rarely starts fights with anyone he doesn’t think he can beat.
Schaller isn’t a great fighter, but he is mediocre and willing—and that’s more than can be said about a lot of the other players on the roster. If Schaller is going to avoid spending much of next season in Utica, he’ll have to do whatever he can to stay in the lineup—and that probably involves sticking up for his teammates. Hopefully this time around he picks smaller opponents than Ottawa’s Ben Harpur.
In all likelihood, Horvat will be named the captain of the Vancouver Canucks for the 2019/20 season—and like any good captain, he’s willing to do whatever his team needs of him. On occasion, that has included scrapping—and Horvat has shown surprising proficiency with his gloves despite largely avoiding altercations in his junior career. Anyone looking at the skilled center as an easy target will probably be unpleasantly surprised.
As of this writing, the Canucks have yet to re-sign Schenn, but if they do he’ll become arguably the most capable fighter in the organization—neck-and-neck with Zack MacEwen. Schenn is a borderline heavyweight with a physical game that complements his fistic prowess—though having one of your six defensemen taking frequent five-minute trips to the box is never a good thing.
Hutton doesn’t fight very often, but when he does he throws absolute bombs. He’s only ever fought to protect a teammate—or to defend himself after throwing a questionable hit—so he’s what they refer to in the biz as a “situational scrapper.” At the very least, he’s ready to act when the need arises.
The chances of Gadjovich seeing time with the Canucks in 2019/20 are slim—most fans would be satisfied with him obtaining a regular spot in the Utica Comets’ lineup—but he bears mentioning here as the only other Utica player on an NHL contract that fights with any regularity. Gadjovich has looked like an angry father since his earliest days in the OHL, and now he brawls like one, too.
Other players—like Jay Beagle, Josh Leivo, and Tanner Pearson—have dropped the gloves a time or two during their NHL careers, but not with any sort of regularity. We’ll leave them out of this discussion.
Is This Enough?
That’s a difficult question to answer without context, so we’ll be doing our best in the coming sections to provide said context.
For the time being, however, it’s probably fair to say that the Canucks are at least in the ballpark of having enough pugilists on their roster.
With 13 fights in 2018/19, Vancouver was slightly below the league average—but only slightly. To wit, the Avalanche, Wild, Predators, and Jets were tied for the fourth-most fights in the entire league with 18—just five more than the Canucks. We’re dealing with an extremely small scale when we’re talking about fighting in the modern NHL.
Based On Last Season
Any NHL team—especially one with designs on the playoffs—can probably benefit from adding competent players that also exude toughness. Being multi-faceted is never a bad thing, and players like Patrick Maroon are currently proving the value of scrappers with skill in the 2019 NHL Playoffs. So, suffice it to say that should any players hit the market that would fit within the Canucks lineup and could also drop the mitts a time or two, they should definitely pursue them.
But the question of adding a player that almost exclusively provides fistic abilities—a Deryk Engelland, a Chris Thorburn, or god forbid a Milan Lucic—is an entirely different story. Fighting no longer appears to be important enough in the NHL to spend all that much time, effort, or assets to acquire people who can do it.
The Canucks entered the 2018/19 season with no dedicated fighter or anyone even approaching that role, but Erik Gudbranson was clearly the de facto enforcer of the team. Heading into 2019/20, they’ve got even less firepower to call upon—with Zack MacEwen and Luke Schenn penciled in as the go-to “tough guys” despite being far from guaranteed spots in the lineup.
But that’s probably okay. Back in Part 1 of this two-part joint, we took a look at the reasons why the Canucks fought in 2018/19—and they didn’t exactly make for a compelling list of justifications.
Once one takes away the fights that were responses to perceived slights against the opponent and those that were ill-conceived attempts at “sparking the team”—as well as those scraps that were just for the heck of it—we’re left with just four fights in 2018/19 that actually seemed to serve any perfunctory purpose.
One three of those occasions, the Canucks were fighting in response to a hit or other malign play against one of their own—twice it was Elias Pettersson, and once it was Jake Virtanen. While the notion that beating someone up after they’ve injured your linemate does anything to prevent injuries is a questionable one, there certainly remains some value in teammates sticking up for one another—for team morale and esteem, if nothing else. There’s also the idea that responding with fists can act as a deterrent against future violent acts, though that’s a much iffier thesis.
Only once was fighting used as any sort of preventative measure—when Josh Leivo noticed Ryan Kesler pestering Elias Pettersson and immediately challenged Kesler to a bout. At the time, Kesler appeared to being trying to goad Pettersson into a fight—and we can all agree that the Canucks are better off for having Leivo trade knuckles with Kesler instead. In this rare circumstance, it sure looks like fighting still serves a role—but it’s also something that only happened once in the entire season.
Compared To The Rest Of The Division And League
As mentioned in the previous article, the Canucks fought at a lower rate than the league average, but only barely—and as mentioned earlier in this article, they were only five fights away from being in the top-four leaguewide. Fighting is on a clear downward trend across the NHL—and Vancouver is just one of many teams that appear to be phasing it out.
Within the Pacific Division, the situation is a little more punchy. The Golden Knights lead the pugilist’s parade with Ryan Reaves and UFA Deryk Engelland—both legitimate heavyweights and two of the best fighters in the league. Interestingly, the Golden Knights had the fewest fights in the entire league with a paltry six.
The Oilers are close behind with the aforementioned Lucic and our old friend Zack Kassian. The Kings still have Kyle Clifford kicking around, and the Flames carried Dalton Prout for much of the year, but he’s a UFA. The Coyotes, Ducks, and Sharks didn’t have any enforcers of note on their rosters, though they were in possession of a few skilled knucklechuckers each.
So, Do The Canucks Need To Add Toughness?
To an extent, probably. As it stands now, one could easily envision the Canucks being overmatched in a playoff series turned ugly—and they don’t possess much in the way of deterrence despite being in a physical division. Replacing at least one soft talent with a more abrasive one certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Despite that, the lack of toughness—and specifically the lack of players who can fight—is not a pressing issue, nor is it something that GM Jim Benning should focus on. Simply put, fighting is only barely relevant in the modern NHL—and it’s nothing to waste assets over. If the team can swap, say, Nikolay Goldobin or Sven Baertschi for players that can produce at a similar rate AND throw punches, they should definitely go for it. But it’s just not a priority anymore, and it probably never will be again—in the age of greater awareness about traumatic brain injuries, the anti-fighting trend is almost certainly not going to reverse.
Still, few Vancouver fans want to see someone harass, headshot, or hip-toss Elias Pettersson in the 2019/20 season without repercussion. Fortunately, they probably don’t have to worry about that. Those four protectionary fights we mentioned earlier in the article? Two of them came from Erik Gudbranson, but the other two came from Josh Leivo and Ben Hutton—and the Hutton scrap featured an attempt by Brock Boeser of all people to exact justice on a Pettersson-targeting opponent.
If Boeser can fight for his teammates, anyone can. The organization probably doesn’t want him to do it very often, but the situation arises so rarely these days that a handful of willing combatants can easily share the duty. As long as the Canucks remain a cohesive team, they’ll all stick up for each other whenever it becomes necessary—and really, that’s all that matters.