Over the past couple of decades, we've heard repeatedly that the days of the hockey goon were numbered.
First it was the dreaded instigator penalty that was going to make them extinct. Then it was the new rules coming out of the lockout, the end of clutching and grabbing and the premium on skill and players who could skate.
And yet for all the talk that there was no room left in the game for one dimensional players whose only asset was their ability to fight, there were still lots of one dimensional players in the game whose only asset was their ability to fight.
Please step forward John Scott and George Parros, to name just two obvious examples.
Now it seems that we've reached another turning point in the debate about the role of enforcers.
And this one is framed differently.
It's not an ethical question about whether fighting belongs in the game.
It's not related to concussions and the obvious safety issues that come with players beating each other in the head with their fists.
It's not a debate about whether - in today's NHL - you need enforcers the way you once did.
It's now a question of whether teams can afford to carry players who have limited ability to possess the puck, can't keep up with the game and have no offensive or defensive upside that would give them any sort of advantage. In other words, do whatever benefits exist from having fighters on the roster overcome the liability of dressing players who would not be playing in the NHL if they couldn't fight?
And here's where the analytics side of the game makes things interesting. Advocates of the role of fighting in hockey have always relied on an argument built on strategic intangibles, the notion that skilled players feel protected when enforcers are in the lineup, that somehow everyone plays an inch taller just knowing that kind of guy is sitting on the end of the bench, even if he only plays a few minutes a night.
Whether or not any of that was actually true became a matter of hockey ideology, depending on which camp you fell into. But there was no reliable way to actually measure or test that theory.
Presumably, through the introduction of analytics into the game, now there is.
And the fact that teams such as the Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers (huh?) will be begin the season without enforcers, suggests that what teams are learning is that enforcers don't help teams win games and are in fact liabilities.
That when the other team can roll four lines of players with hockey skills and your team can't, that's probably not a good thing.
And that in today's NHL where teams tend to be clustered so closely in the standings in the battle for playoff spots, teams simply can't afford to give away games just to – quote – "send a message."
Of course, like many things where analytics are concerned, we shouldn't have needed data to tell us this. The fact that NHL teams put enforcers in the press box at playoff time and that the teams which wind up competing for the Stanley Cup each year are those that can roll four lines were dead giveaways.
But if it took hockey embracing analytics to arrive at what should have been obvious all along, then so be it. It turns out hockey enforcers - who are always game for a fight against the opposition's enforcer - may be no match for the nerds.