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No goons, just good: Red Wings' winning ways fights NHL belief that every team needs enforcer

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

The Edmonton Oilers claimed Steve MacInytre off waivers Monday. General manager Craig MacTavish said it was a direct result of what happened over the weekend.

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Detroit has relied on talent over one-dimensional toughness during its 22-season playoff streak. (USA Today)

Sam Gagner took a stick in the jaw and Taylor Hall took a shoulder to the head in an exhibition against the Vancouver Canucks. Then enforcer John Scott went after sniper Phil Kessel when the Buffalo Sabres faced the Toronto Maple Leafs, inciting a line brawl.

“You need a deterrent,” MacTavish told reporters, “especially with our team.”

But do you? Or, at least, are you best served by using a roster spot on a guy like MacIntyre, who has 17 fights in 91 NHL games but only four points?

Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland will speak only about his own team and own philosophy. But consider this: The Wings have been built on skill, and now they are moving into the new Atlantic Division in the realigned NHL. The Wings are about to face opponents from the old pugilistic Northeast Division, including those Sabres and Leafs. The Wings’ only real fighter, Jordin Tootoo, is out with a shoulder injury – and Holland is not looking to add another one.

[Also: NHL says fighting goalies deserved mask-removal penalties]

“Am I concerned going to the East?” Holland said. “Would I like to have a big, tough guy in the middle of the lineup? Yeah. But I haven’t really bought into having fourth-line guys that don’t have much skill and are one-dimensional players. I guess I put more of a premium on goals.”

There is no debate that many fans like fighting. There is no debate that fighting can intimidate and play a role in team toughness. There is no debate that there are different ways to build a successful organization.

But do you need fighting to sell the game to hardcore hockey people? Do you need it to win? Does it necessarily protect your skilled players? No. It can even be counterproductive.

Detroit loves a good fight. It has a scrappy, underdog image. It has a rich boxing history, once the home of Kronk Gym and Emanuel Steward and Tommy ‘Hitman’ Hearns. The Wings play in an arena named after Joe Louis, and a huge sculpture of his fist hangs in the heart of the city.

The Joe rocks like anyplace else for a fight. Some of the most popular Wings have been guys who could punch – Bob Probert, Darren McCarty, Brendan Shanahan – and a couple of the most memorable moments in Wings history were line brawls against the blood rival Colorado Avalanche.

Yet the Wings have hardly dropped the gloves over the last couple of decades, the Joe has been sold out for virtually all of that time, and the fans have embraced peaceful, graceful players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, too.

Why? The Wings have won.

And why have they won? Their skill has flourished without much fighting – maybe partly because of not much fighting.

The Wings have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons – no one else has a current streak longer than nine – and according to hockeyfights.com, they haven’t ranked in the top 20 in fighting majors since ranking fifth in 1993-94, Probert’s last season in Detroit.

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The Oilers reacquired Steve MacIntyre after the Canucks took liberties with Sam Gagner and Taylor Hall. (AP)

They have set the standard in the NHL since 1995, with four Stanley Cups, six Cup finals and eight conference finals, plus five Presidents’ Trophies, 14 100-point seasons and a 70-point, 48-game, lockout-shortened season. They haven’t had a true enforcer since Stu Grimson in 1995 and 1995-96, and even then, they finished 22nd and 21st in fighting majors in a 26-team league. Ten times in the past 16 seasons, they finished last in the league in fighting majors. Four other times, they finished second-to-last. They have not ranked higher than second-to-last for 13 straight seasons.

“Over the course of 82 games, every team in the league has a night when they wish they had some ingredient on their team that they don’t have,” Holland said. “Is there the odd night that we wish we had two or three big heavyweights that could go out and really dole out some fisticuffs? Yeah.”

But especially in a salary-cap system, do you use precious resources to prepare for the odd nights and the isolated incidents? Holland wants his power play to be his deterrent. He wants tough guys who can play at least some role. He wants bottom-six forwards who can contribute offensively or at least kill penalties. That takes pressure off the top-six guys. That gives him depth in case of injuries.

[Related: Sam Gagner tweets photo of broken jaw, and it's ghastly]

“Which one of those guys do you want to get rid of for a one-dimensional tough guy?” Holland said. “If I go out and get three more of those guys, do I think we’re going to go farther in the playoffs? No, I don’t.”

The Wings signed Tootoo before last season because they felt he brought a needed dimension to their lineup, and fighting was part of that. He dropped the gloves off the opening faceoff in their second game. He did it again in their sixth game. He ended up fighting eight times, and after ranking 30th in fighting majors for eight consecutive seasons, the Wings leapt all the way to 29th with 14, one ahead of the 30th-place Oilers.

But Tootoo helped the Wings get into the playoffs by not fighting. He didn’t drop the gloves at all in April. In a critical four-game winning streak to close out the season, he didn’t take a penalty and scored a game-winning goal. And once the playoffs arrived, he played in only one game as the Wings went all the way to overtime of Game 7 in the second round. He had no role anymore.

Six of the top 11 teams in fighting majors last season are now in the Wings’ division – Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Buffalo and Montreal. Two of them – Ottawa and Montreal – did brawl in the playoffs, and now, under the NHL's new format, the first two rounds will be within the division.

The Leafs have Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Mark Fraser. The Bruins have Shawn Thornton, Milan Lucic and Adam McQuaid. The Lightning has B.J. Crombeen. The Senators have Chris Neil, Zack Smith and Matt Kassian. The Sabres have Scott, Steve Ott and Patrick Kaleta. The Habs have Brandon Prust and now George Parros.

The Wings will have Tootoo once he’s healthy again, and … well, that’s about it.

But is Holland worried someone like Scott will go after someone like Zetterberg?

“My feeling is, even if you have a tough guy, they still might,” Holland said. “If somebody out there makes a decision that they’re going to go after somebody’s best players, whether you’ve got a deterrent there or not and they get on the ice against them, it’s going to happen.”

[More: Olympic leak! Is this Team Canada's black third jersey?]

Scott went after Kessel on Sunday night, didn’t he? Sure, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle could have put out a tough guy instead. He had the last line change at home. But fighting begets fighting, and skill begets skill.

If you have a fighter, he might deter someone from taking liberties. He might not. If he ends up going after someone who went after one of your skilled guys, it doesn’t change the fact someone went after your skill guy. It just continues the cycle of violence. If you don’t have a fighter in your lineup, it might break the cycle. Maybe your opponents will think twice about putting a fighter in their lineup in the first place.

Tough guys often are healthy scratches against the Wings, because teams are worried more about Detroit beating them than about Detroit beating them up. That forces opponents to play the Wings’ style, keeps the Wings from playing their opponents’ style and reduces the risk of a gong show.

Holland doesn’t know how it’s going to play out this season. He will watch how the Wings handle the Atlantic Division and reevaluate as he always does. But the Wings handled heavy teams in the West like the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, and they are going to try to keep winning their way in the East.

“If we want to change direction, it’s going to take us three or four years,” Holland said. “I can’t change direction over the course of a summer and clean out a bunch of skill guys and bring in three, four big guys that are one-dimensional.”

The Wings open Oct. 2 against Buffalo at Joe Louis Arena. One question: How will the Wings handle John Scott? Another: Should the Sabres dress John Scott at all?


[Related: Rangers GM says Derek Stepan 'a fool' if he doesn't re-sign]
[Related: Alexander Radulov scores highlight-reel 'Superman' goal in KHL]
[Related: Canucks' Zack Kassian suspended 8 games for reckless slash]
[Related: Sabres ruffian John Scott explains why he attacked Leafs' Phil Kessel]

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