Indulge me in a thought experiment. Consider the cases of Forward X and Forward Z. X, despite having some of the cushiest zonestarts of any forward in the league over the last four seasons and not facing much in the way of quality of competition, is even at even strength. He's been outshot way more than anyone with his zonestarts should, but his goaltending has bailed him out over the last three seasons.
Z is -8 over the last four seasons in extremely limited minutes (less than 5.5 minutes per game). He's faced even worse competition than X, but has had slightly more difficult zonestarts.
Forward Y is +12 at even strength over the last four seasons. He's never had a zonestart higher than 46.6% and twice had zonestarts in the 38% range. He's faced toughs or second-toughs for those four seasons and has posted a positive Adjusted Corsi over those four years.
Which forward is more difficult to play against?
The clear answer is forward Y.
Forward X is Ben Eager, Forward Z is Darcy Hordichuk and Forward Y is Eric Belanger.*
Now, type "Harder to play against +Oilers" or "Tougher to play against +Oilers" in your favorite search engine and limit the results to calendar year 2011. The theme was started by mainstream writers like Jim Matheson but it grew and soon became a dreaded narrative. Everyone in Edmonton now talks and writes about how the Oilers are tougher because they've added Ben Eager, Andy Sutton and Darcy Hordichuk. And tougher means tougher/harder to play against, according to the narrative. But does the narrative hold?
Are the Minnesota Wild going to stop playing good defense and killing the Oilers on special teams because Darcy Hordichuk is now in the lineup to fight Brad Staubitz? Is Cal Clutterbuck going to stop hitting people because Ben Eager is in the lineup? If he didn't when Steve MacIntyre was in the lineup, what changes? Fans are told that players like Hordichuk and Eager, and J.F. Jacques before them, are so good without the puck. The stats tell a different story.
Three studies have looked at the value of a goon from each angle of the narrative. JP Nikota of Pension Plan Puppets looked at the effects of fighting on "momentum" and found that fighting had no measurable effect on the next goal scored. 67 Sound of The Leafs Nation looked at the correlation between goons and team injuries and found that the presence of a goon had no correlation with injury rates. I've looked at the value of a goon, and though I have more work to do on it, specifically WOWY effects on 3rd and 4th line players forced to play with goons, it's clear that goons cost their team at least one win per year, probably more. So if they don't change the momentum of the game, they can't prevent injuries to their teammates and they cost their team at least two points per year, what purpose do these players serve, and what about their presence on the roster makes the team so much more difficult to play against?
Put simply, their presence doesn't make the team more difficult to play against. The hardest minutes in hockey occur when a player isn't holding the puck -- chasing and defending exact a far greater toll compared to minutes spent possessing the puck and pushing the play. The difficulty of playing defense against world-class athletes underscores the importance of possession. No matter what the narrative might say, games aren't controlled, aren't won and lost, through intimidation or fear. Games are won by possessing the puck, by shooting the puck, and occasionally by a goalie living in the whale tail. In some cases, players who are very good at those things also hit people and agitate, players like Ryan Kesler and David Backes play a physical game, but they're also good at hockey.
There's a second narrative that underlies the first, namely, NHL players are afraid or intimidated by other NHL players and that fear and intimidation forces them to alter their game in a negative way. Goons have been widely discussed - goons only fight goons in pre-arranged shows like terrible ogre ballets, and only serve to intimidate each other:
He told me how much he detested those games when he knew he had to fight, and the arena became nothing more than a boxing ring with 18,000 fans waiting for the main event. Early in his career, he would get so nervous, his legs would stiffen and he’d almost be incapable of standing up. He’d worry for days in advance of a big encounter with a prizefighter on the other team. What if he lost and let his teammates and fans down?
That dread ate away at him.
Edmonton fans should see right through the second part, the "intimidation" aspect of the narrative. For years, TSN and Sportsnet talked about Robyn Regehr's impact on Ales Hemsky's game. The story goes that Regehr's presence causes Hemsky to "think twice", that Hemsky had his "head on a swivel" when he entered the zone against the Flames: that Hemsky is intimidated by Regehr and his cohorts. Is it true? Has Regehr significantly altered Hemsky's game during the course of his career?
Hemsky has averaged .806 points per game (P/G) for his career or 66 points per 82 games (P/82). Against the Flames, and the terribly intimidating Regehr, he's averaged .717 P/G or 59 P/82. And while a believer in the narrative of fear and intimidation might say "A-HA! He falls off by 7 points per year! That's 10%! See? He's scared!" It should be noted that Hemsky has averaged .654 P/G or 54 P/82 against the Red Wings and against the Blackhawks he's averaged .615 P/G or 50 P/82. Has Hemsky also been afraid of the Wings and Blackhawks? What about the Wild? Hemsky has averaged .385 P/G or 32 P/82, so who is the boogeyman in Minnesota?
Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk might take a bunch of penalties and start a bunch of fights, but that doesn't make them difficult to play against. Would you rather play a team icing 18 Ben Eagers or 18 Wayne Gretzkys? What about 18 Darcy Hordichuks or 18 Dale Hawerchuks? Good players and good teams are harder to play against. Bad players are easy to play against. Opponents just let them spin in the corner like the Tasmanian Devil all they want - they're far too busy scoring on those tough players to care who or what they are hitting. If the Oilers are harder to play against in 2011-12, it will be because Eric Belanger will be around to do the dirty work and a group of talented young forwards become better players, not because of facewashes and brawls.