If you want your first indication that the NHL is phasing out the traditional role of the enforcer, your first clue should be that this article is not a Top 10 - ten years ago, it could have been a top 30, because every team in the league boasted one (if not more) tough guy who was only on the roster to pound on anyone who came near their team's top players.
With the rise of awareness on the issue of concussions, combined with a shift in mentality towards "effective" players that can contribute to puck possession stats and play significant minutes, there doesn't seem to be a need for a goon on the end of the bench to send out once a period to stir the pot. Last year, guys like Colton Orr, George Parros, and Frazer McLaren were on opening night rosters. This year, they have been relegated to the minor leagues or aren't signed to any professional hockey contract whatsoever.
While the league slowly but surely approaches the day where the "enforcer" will be completely extinct (and will perhaps coincide with the elimination of fighting from hockey altogether), there are still several rosters that have spots taken up by guys who are there for the sole purpose of dropping the gloves and keeping the opposition in line. They are few and far between, but they haven't completely gone the way of the dinosaur just yet - and while many will argue their worth in today's NHL, there are some who still strongly believe that the game still needs to be policed - now more than ever before. Admittedly, the logic of letting guys bash each other's skulls in as retribution for a headshot seems off, but until the NHL can find an appropriate and effective way to deter players from going for dangerous hits, the role of fighting will remain an integral part of the fabric of hockey, whether the detractors like it or not.
*This list will use cap hits to determine its order.
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11 John Scott, San Jose Sharks ($700,000)
John Scott is the most recognizable enforcer in the NHL today - mostly because he towers over everyone and doesn't have to put much effort into knocking around anyone who makes the mistake of bothering one of his teammates, or bothering Scott himself. He's currently getting paid $700,000 dollars to beat up on anyone who tries to get near any of the numerous San Jose Sharks stars, and to illegally leave the bench to maul Tim Jackman to "make a point." Scott was only involved in five total fights last season, but that number is that low because most are smart enough not to tick him off (unlike Phil Kessel).
10 T9. Andrew Desjardins, San Jose Sharks ($750,000)
The Sharks don't come off as a "rugged" or "truckulent" bunch, but as you can see from the first two names on this list, they are not a bunch to be trifled with. Andrew Desjardins gets credit for being a "higher volume" fighter than most, a job that surely takes a toll on the body. Desjardins got into ten scraps last season, and has already dropped the gloves three times this year - and we're not even a month into the season. Perhaps he's worried about the presence of Scott, who is in theory the "better enforcer," but Desjardins has the added benefit of being a half-decent hockey player.
9 T9. Brian McGrattan, Calgary Flames ($750,000)
Brian McGrattan is as tough as they come in the NHL today. He's been making a living with his fists and rugged style of hockey for the past decade, and while he doesn't see the ice regularly (besides last season, when he played 76 games), he makes sure you feel his presence when he's in the lineup. McGrattan is now tasked with keeping on eye on those who might try to rough up the Flames up and coming young stars, those who try will have to answer to McGrattan, though, whether they like it or not.
8 Luke Gazdic, Edmonton Oilers ($800,000)
Luke Gazdic is not the first name that comes to mind when we think of the top enforcers in the NHL, but he's proving himself to the Oilers' brass. He finished third in the league last season with 15 fights, and while he's a big, intimidating presence who is good to have around to protect Edmonton's (underwhelming) superstars, it should be noted that it took him six years to suit up for his first NHL game. Gazdic certainly fits the bill when it comes to "enforcers."
7 Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals ($894,167)
Tom Wilson is an interesting name on this list. Wilson was an impressive junior player with good offensive capabilities while playing an intensely physical style of play. He hits to hurt (remember, there's a difference between hurt and "injure"), and he does it as well as anyone in the league. He's able to answer the bell when needed, and will stand up for teammates without hesitation - he finished with 14 fights last season, all while being a legitimate contributor on an albeit disappointing Capitals roster. Wilson is one of the more "complete" enforcers, in that he can actually play.
6 Matt Martin, New York Islanders ($1,000,000)
Matt Martin is as solid an enforcer as there is in the league today. He can handle himself against just about anyone (often coming out with victories), and is able to make some sort of hockey-related contribution even while he's racking up the PIMs. Martin was involved in ten fights last season - a good balance between enforcing the code while also being enough of a bother in the back of opponents minds not to try anything while playing against the Islanders. John Tavares no doubt rests easy at night knowing Martin has his back.
5 Cody McLeod, Colorado Avalanche ($1,150,000)
Cody McLeod is the resident tough guy in Colorado, and is no doubt one of Patrick Roy's favorite players to send out onto the ice. McLeod can be a rough opponent to deal with, to say the least and while he got ragdolled by Jarred Tinordi last week, he still commands respect wherever he steps onto the ice. McLeod had 12 fights last season while putting up 13 points - a statline McLeod has steadily contributed to the Avalanche since he broke into the league in 2007. He's currently at the top of the fights list for this season, as he's already dropped the mitts four times.
4 Shawn Thornton, Florida Panthers ($1,200,000)
Shawn Thornton earned his stripes as a an enforcer to be feared as a valued member of the Boston Bruins for eight seasons, making his mark with his intimidating glare and top-notch fighting ability. Thornton spent his career in Boston protecting Bruins stars and wreaking havoc on opponents of all sizes. Thornton used that reputation to earn himself a lucrative (for an enforcer) 2 year/$2.4 million contract with the Florida Panthers. He hasn't fought much thus far - at 37 years old it can be assumed that he may not even be interested in dropping the gloves many more times. He's paid his dues in the NHL and can get my on his "fear factor" alone at this point of his career.
3 Jared Boll, Columbus Blue Jackets ($1,700,000)
Jared Boll has never really gotten the attention he's deserved while slugging it out with the Columbus Blue Jackets. For one thing, he's been playing on a team that had horrible rosters up until recently. He was also overshadowed by Derek Dorsett until Dorsett was sent to the Rangers. Boll is now the lone sherriff in Columbus, and he's embraced the role. His PIMs have declined over the years, but he's still considered one of the toughest in the league - he's started the year with a bang, having already fought twice.
2 Chris Neil, Ottawa Senators ($1,900,000)
Chris Neil is despised by anyone and everyone with any association to the National Hockey League, save for those who play, run, or cheer for the Ottawa Senators. Neil has been the league's number one pain-in-the-you-know-what since he broke into the NHL in 2005. Since then, he's already broken the 2,000 PIM mark, and with at least a few years left in him he may even reach 3,000. Neil got into 15 scraps last year, not to mention all the melees and scrums he started throughout the year. Neil is as tough as they come, though, and is not someone to take lightly, even at 35 years old. There are few players in the league who play with the kind of ferocity and tenacity Neil brings to the rink every night - it's the reason he's lasted in the league this long...that, and the fact that he can still chip in offensively at a fairly good clip.
Opposing goalies will tell you that Neil is also a pain in that he's often planted in front of the oppositions net during Senators powerplays, a role Neil has played to near perfection for years.
1 Brandon Prust, Montreal Canadiens ($2,500,000)
Many will argue that Brandon Prust doesn't belong under the "enforcer" label, but the stats (and the eyeball test) don't lie. Prust fought 11 times last season and has already gotten into it with two opponents this season. He's the toughest customer to deal with on a Habs roster devoid of a "true" enforcer, especially with George Parros gone. Prust is not the biggest guy on the ice, but he is considered one of the smartest fighters in the league (watch his fight from Saturday night against the larger Kevin Klein from the Rangers). He still plays an important "hockey" role with the Habs as an effective penalty killer and solid bottom-line grinder, but there's no denying that Prust is also getting paid as much as he does to drop the gloves whenever a teammate needs a hand or when the Habs need a spark. Since he's signed with the Habs, he's done everything asked of him to earn every penny of his four-year deal and then some.
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