As most Edmonton Oilers fans will know, about a month ago forward Luke Gazdic signed a two year extension with the team. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for the brawler, but I wanted to open the debate a bit more about the role of enforcers. It’s a role that some hockey fans claim is antiquated and unnecessary, something that comes second to skill and finesse, and that other hockey fans deem necessary to the game and a significant part of any team. Everyone loves a hockey fight – but how important is it to have a strong enforcer on the team?
To look at stats alone, in the last season Gazdic got into fifteen fights, got 127 penalty minutes, and held his ground in every brawl he got into. He defends not only himself on the ice, but also his teammates – he never backs down, he never refuses a fight, and he holds his own extremely well. Another point in his benefit is that he’s a fairly good skater – while a giant, hulking brawler slowly cruising the ice might inspire some fear, a 6’3, 240+ pound man zipping around is a lot more rare and potentially threatening.
I’ve made my opinions about enforcers, particular in the context of the Oilers, pretty clear. While a lot of Edmonton’s young forwards are skilled and speedy, they’re a little bit soft. They can’t always hold their own going up against very aggressive opponents (see – Sam Gagner getting his teeth caved in at one point, or players taking runs at Taylor Hall before the season had even started). An enforcer cruising around the ice severely reduces this kind of behavior, if not entirely stopping it. When the opponent knows Gazdic will toss his gloves off if they take a run at Hall, Yakupov, etc., they’re less likely to take the risk.
However, Gazdic does have some trouble with the type of play some of the softer forwards are skilled at – positional play, puck handling, etc. So, should we praise the old school enforcer whose job is to come on the ice and bring aggression, or should we try to reform the brawlers and give them a little finesse to pair with their fisticuffs?
The Oilers need to figure out exactly how they want to use Gazdic and what type of enforcer they’re hoping to have on the ice. It’s obvious that Gazdic isn’t going to be clocking 20+ minutes a game – he has a specialized role. Many argue that an enforcer doesn’t actually help the team get more points, which, fair enough. However, he does help the team in other, equally important, senses. Getting pushed around by the other team doesn’t help a player’s game, and if Gazdic is able to deter opponents from taking liberties with the forwards, they have a better chance of using the skills that THEY have in order to score those goals.
Should the Oilers play Gazdic only when the opponents are starting to get too aggressive, and some brute force is needed on the ice? Should he get limited time in more games, serving as a kind of ever-present threatening force to deter conflict from erupting? Should he be made to develop his non-fighting skills more in order to be less of an enforcer and more of an aggressive, well-rounded player?
He might not be a multimillion dollar signing, which is why his contract extension didn’t get an enormous amount of press, but he is certainly an integral element in Edmonton.