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Low-minute goons land on the scrap heap
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NHL's fights-per-game average has plummeted to its lowest level in 45 years as dance partners become increasingly difficult to find
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By JAMES MIRTLE
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Monday, December 22, 2014 – Print Edition, Page S4


TORONTO -- jmirtle@globeandmail.com

There was skirmish after skirmish and a parade to the penalty box, especially late in a crazy first period.

For whatever reason, the Penguins and Panthers went at each other on Saturday, racking up a combined 76 penalty minutes, which included 28 in less than a minute late in the first period.

But in all the chaos, there were only four fighting majors.

And that's been the general trend all year: Fighting is dying.

Heading into Sunday's games, there had been only 0.35 fights per game in the NHL, the lowest pace in 45 years going back to the 1968-69 season.

The league's top fighter - Colorado's Cody McLeod - had only eight majors in 32 games.

Forty per cent of the way into the 2014-15 season, 12 teams don't even have 10 fights. That includes the most dramatically rehabilitated team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have dropped from a league-leading 48 last season to being on pace for fewer than 15 this year (six after 33 games).

The biggest difference in the league is the obvious elimination of low-minute goons. Pittsburgh's Steve Downie leads the NHL in penalty minutes (135 in 32 games) but he plays 13 minutes a night and contributes on the scoresheet.

The number of forwards who have played the majority of the games with less than 10 minutes of ice time a night is down to only 14 of 300 players leaguewide. Of those, very few are onedimensional fighters.

You could see this coming in the off-season. Fighters such as George Parros, Kevin Westgarth, Paul Bissonnette, Krys Barch and others couldn't find NHL contracts and were forced to look elsewhere for employment.

Parros and Barch retired. Westgarth is playing in Northern Ireland, where he has eight points in 10 games and a relatively low PIM total. Bissonnette is in the AHL and has yet to fight.

Fighting remains far more prevalent in the minors than the NHL, but it's worth noting that it's also way down in both the OHL and WHL, where efforts have been made to limit the number of times the gloves are dropped.

At this point, the decline at the NHL level could now be hastened by two things.

No. 1, the fighters remaining in the league don't have a whole lot of other guys to fight.

No. 2, the feeder leagues for the NHL, led by the Canadian junior ones, simply won't have many players who fight routinely.

The "end of the enforcer" has been predicted for decades, but at this point, this does feel like the death knell.

CAN THE WINNIPEG JETS SURVIVE THEIR BATTERED BLUELINE?

Don't expect any team in the NHL to have to go through as dire an injury situation as what Winnipeg is facing right now.

Through sheer bad luck, the Jets have lost every single member of their top four on defence for a substantial time frame.

Last week, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff found a reinforcement in Jay Harrison - who was playing third pairing minutes on lastplace Carolina - for a sixth-round pick. A night later, the relatively no-name pairing of Harrison and Grant Clitsome led Winnipeg in even-strength ice time in a 2-1 win over Boston.

The rest of the blueline included Dustin Byfuglien (moved back from forward), rookie Ben Chiarot, Adam Pardy and Paul Postma.

The Jets have quietly had an outstanding season, one overshadowed by some of the highs and lows of the other Canadian teams. Going into Sunday against Philadelphia, Winnipeg had only 10 regulation losses in its first 33 games and was on pace for 99 points, which would be a franchise record for the Thrashers/ Jets.

Unlike Calgary and Toronto's early successes, the Jets' has some real substance, and they have a shot at making the playoffs in the toughest division in hockey. If they can survive these injuries and somehow pull that off, coach Paul Maurice deserves some serious coach-of-the year consideration.

RISING

Most improved possession players (forwards)

Nikolai Kulemin, N.Y. Islanders: Leaving the Leafs helps a lot of players in this department. Kulemin has gone from a 41-per-cent possession rating to 53 this year with the Isles, who are suddenly one of the top teams in this department in the league. Plenty of ice time with John Tavares has certainly been part of Kulemin's rise.

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay: The Calder Trophy runner-up has been even more impressive this season as part of a terrific second line for the Lightning. Palat gets more attention for his goal scoring, but he is also a solid defensive player and has been a key cog on the penalty kill.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg: On pace for close to the 60-point mark again and a share of the team scoring lead, Wheeler has a career high in minutes with nearly 20 a game and has been a big part of the Jets' solid season defensively. Of late, he's been playing on an effective play-driving line with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd, and his possession rating is up to more than 60 per cent, one of the highest marks in the NHL.

Honourable mention: Colin Wilson and Matt Nieto.

Biggest decliners: Matt Moulson and Dwight King.

RISING

Most improved possession players (defencemen)

Jonas Brodin, Minnesota: Could be the most underrated blueliner in the game. Still only 21 years old, the smooth Swede plays 25 minutes a night for a Wild team that appears to be on the verge of taking the next step, if their goaltending situation can sort itself out.

Matt Carle, Tampa Bay: The big beneficiary of the Lightning signing Anton Stralman in the offseason. With Victor Hedman sidelined half the season due to injury, Carle was thrust onto the top pair and that duo helped Tampa push its way up the Eastern Conference standings early on. With Hedman back this month, Carle's in a third pairing role, which shows just how much more depth this team has over last season.

Ryan Ellis, Nashville: Netminder Pekka Rinne has received a lot of the credit for the Predators' resurgence, but their young blueline taking the next step has been a huge part of what's allowed them to be competitive again. Ellis, a former Canadian world junior star, is playing an extra 3.5 minutes a night and become essentially the No. 3 behind the big pair of Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Having that depth has been key.

Honourable mention: Kris Letang and Seth Jones.

Biggest decliners: Tyler Myers and Josh Gorges.

NILL GIVES ANALYTICS THUMBS UP

The NHL remains behind the other three major North American leagues in terms of analytics, and many teams and executives that are using them remain reluctant to talk about it.

That's why it was surprising over the weekend when Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill was so revelatory when it comes to how his team is using data, becoming one of the first NHL general managers to give concrete examples of how these new statistics are playing a role in their day-to-day operation.

"I think it's a very important part of the game," Nill said on TSN Radio. "We play in this cap system so every team is restricted [financially] to a certain point.

What's the 1 per cent, 2 per cent, 3 per cent of the next step that can make us a better team than somebody else?

"I think everybody in the league is working on analytics.

It's just finding where does it fit in."

Where it fits in for Dallas at this point is mainly with the coaching staff. Coach Lindy Ruff came from Buffalo, where metrics like Corsi originated. He likes to use possession numbers to show his third- and fourth-line forwards when they're controlling play.

Those lines aren't producing offence as frequently, Nill explained, so it's even more important that they play a smart possession game.

"The players are starting to get into it a little bit," he said. "Once they understand that if you don't manage the puck right, you're going to have a negative number... it's been very useful for kind of educating the players that way."

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

Associated Graphic

Deryk Engelland, left, of the Flames and Derek Dorsett of the Canucks tussle Saturday in Vancouver. Fighting majors are getting rare.

RICH LAM/GETTY IMAGES

Paul Maurice

Nikolai Kulemin

Ryan Ellis

Jim Nill


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