They also make it possible for their teams to land bigger profits by drawing fans to the arena and challenging for the Stanley Cup. But these players wouldn't be as good without their enforcers – tough guys who typically don't score much but are willing to pummel anyone who dares to get rough.
Enforcers have a long tradition in the league. Bob Probert helped the Detroit Red Wings regain prominence after 14 straight losing seasons by dishing out punishment to anyone who took liberties with Steve Yzerman. Ditto for the Philadelphia Flyers' Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, who protected Bobby Clarke in the mid-1970s as the team won two Stanley Cups. The Edmonton Oilers used Dave Semenko as their policeman in the mid-1980s to keep Wayne Gretzky safe as the Oilers captured their first two championships.
Says Lacavalier, a three-time All-Star who led the Tampa Bay Lighting in points last season: "We need [fighters]. If there weren't fights, players wouldn't be accountable for their actions." With NHL payrolls capped at 57 percent of revenue, having an inexpensive enforcer enables teams to spend more money on skilled players.
The Lightning recently signed Lecavalier to an 11-year, $85 million contract extension. But he's off to a slow start through seven games this season, and the Lightning sit in last place after free-agent enforcer David Koci was unable to fill the void left by the off-season departure of Lecavalier's longtime bodyguard Andre Roy and was cut by the team earlier this month.
To determine the best fighters for the buck, we compared player fighting stats since the start of the 2006-07 season to their pay last year. Since a game's momentum usually swings to the team whose player prevails in a fight, we awarded a bonus for each win and subtracted points for each loss, as determined by fan voting at hockeyfights.com, an online Mecca for pugilism at the rink.
When comparing salaries, we took experience into account by contrasting a player's pay with a pool of enforcers that have similar longevity in the league, since younger players have pay-limits set by the NHL. Only the 15 players currently active on NHL rosters who dropped their gloves 20 or more times while playing in at least half their team's games over the past two seasons were included in our ranking.
The best fighter for the money is Colton Orr of the New York Rangers. Orr fought 34 times during the past two seasons (the most in the Eastern Conference), winning 21 of them (tops in the NHL). His $525,000 salary last year was only $50,000 above the league minimum, 9 percent less than the average of other enforcers who have qualified for restricted free agency.
Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens ranks second, despite being hockey's highest-paid enforcer last year, earning $1.3 million playing for Pittsburgh. Reason: If there was a heavyweight title for hockey fighting, the belt would be around his waist. Laraque holds a record of 19 wins, zero losses and two draws over the past two seasons, while commonly dropping the gloves against hockey's premier fighters.
Coming out of the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, the league marketed itself as "The New NHL," which among other changes, meant a commitment to reduce fighting. Hockey fights dropped from 789 in the season before the lockout to 466 during the 2005-06 season. But last season the number of fights increased 33 percent, to 664, and is on pace to reach 879 this year.
It seems that the NHL now recognizes this trend and fighting's place in the game. The league recently reversed course, deciding to show video clips of fights on their Web site for the first time, and it expects fans to continue doing the same on outside sites. Says Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, "It's like oxygen, get used to it."
The top five:
1. Colton Orr, New York Rangers: Slideshow
2. Georges Laraque, Montreal Canadiens: Slideshow
3. Shawn Thornton, Boston Bruins: Slideshow
4. Donald Brashear, Washington Capitals: Slideshow
5. Andrew Peters, Buffalo Sabres: Slideshow
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