Whether you like it or not, fighting is still a part of hockey, and as long as that's the case, players are going to drop the gloves and go at it with an opponent. Whether it's a staged battle between two goons or a fight sparked by a brutal hit on a teammate, the NHL (and the levels of hockey just below it) are still allowing players to police the games themselves, to a certain extent.
Because of this, teams are still willing to take on guys who have a reputation of being nothing more than a guy who can hop on the ice and drop the gloves - and do so effectively. While fighting in hockey has stayed the same, for the most part, the types of fighters we see in this era of the sport are vastly different from the days of the Broad Street Bullies or the golden era of enforcers. Today's fighters approach fisticuffs with a plan. Barring the odd discrepancy, gone are the days of two guys wildly throwing haymakers without rhyme or reason.
Of course, we still have our heavy hitters in the game today, but top-end fighters are not "the biggest guy on the team anymore" - as you'll see throughout this list. It's one thing to punch hard, but it's another thing entirely to connect properly.
*Includes players on an NHL roster as of October 8th, 2015. Names like John Scott and Brian McGrattan have been omitted as they are currently not currently on an NHL roster.
15 Tim Jackman
One of the elder statesmen of the hockey fighters club, Jackman likely doesn't crack the list if the likes of John Scott, Brian McGrattan and Tom Sestito are on NHL rosters. That said, Jackman has been dropping the gloves for years and for the most part he's been one of the best. He might not be as spry "in the ring" as he once was, but he still takes on all comers - notably Scott twice last season. Jackman will continue to be an intimidating force on the ice, but it's likely we'll see less and less of Jackman's gloves on the ice over the final few seasons of his career.
14 Chris Neil
Like Jackman, Chris Neil has been around for awhile - so his skill as a fighter these days comes more from years of experience rather than pure physical ability. Neil is one of the most aggravating players in the league - he knows how to rattle opponents, and when they come after him, he knows how to take them down. He's a bit like Matthew Barnaby in the sense that he'll continue to aggravate opponents while he's tangled up with them, making it all the more likely that they'll spend the major penalty plotting their next attack on Neil rather than focusing on the game.
13 Kyle Clifford
Kyle Clifford has established himself as the L.A. Kings resident tough guy over the past five seasons. He's a smart fighter who's capable of handling himself against all kinds of opponents, even if they have several pounds and inches on him. He's been consistently solid over the years in the fisticuffs department - he won't destroy anybody, but he won't get tossed around like a rag doll, either. On a team that likes to bang and crash, having a guy like Clifford around makes it much easier for the Kings to play their style of hockey.
12 Mike Brown
At 5'11", Mike Brown isn't the biggest guy on the ice - but some nights it might seem like he is. Like many before him, Brown scratched and clawed his way into a regular NHL roster spot with the help of his knuckles, and when he finally made it, he didn't stop doing what had gotten him to the show. Brown takes on all comers and is an old-school mauler of sorts - he likes to throw a lot of punches and when they connect, they can definitely do some damage.
11 Zac Rinaldo
Like Brown, Zac Rinaldo isn't the biggest guy you'll see out on the ice, but he hasn't let his size get in the way of his pugilistic side. Rinaldo likes to run around a wreak havoc. He'll remind you of the likes of Daniel Carcillo and maybe a bit of Sean Avery to a certain extent. When the bell tolls, though, Rinaldo is ready and willing to go, wherever, whenever. He knows what he's doing when the gloves are off, too. He won't always notch the win against the bigger guys, but he can tangle with just about anyone in the league and come out with a split decision, or at the very least, a raucous crowd and a charged up bench.
10 Anthony Peluso
Anthony Peluso lands in the "new age" category of fighters. For one thing, he's a young guy, but more noticeably, he wears a visor. He threw one on after not wearing a visor to start his NHL career and while he's caught some flak for it, it's only a matter of time before every NHL player has one on anyway.
Those who choose to taunt Peluso about it or decide to take out one of his teammates while he's on the ice, won't be too happy to see the face behind that visor bee-lining for them. Peluso is a heavyweight in every sense of the word and he's got the fighting smarts to go along with it. He's taken on some hard-hitters, but he's still working his way up the ranks. With his size and fighting skill, though, it won't be long before he's mentioned among the best in the game.
9 Brandon Bollig
If you didn't know who Brandon Bollig was before now, get used to hearing the name. Bollig, like Peluso, is earning his stripes as one of the best punchers in the game today. Bollig is a big body, a fearless battler and a heavy puncher. He started to make a name for himself while in Chicago, but he placed himself among the enforcement elite last year with a dominant season in Calgary, dropping the gloves 11 times and coming out looking like the winner in nearly every single bout. With a long reach and a heavy punch, Bollig, like Peluso, could be in the top fighters conversation for awhile.
8 Cody McLeod
Cody McLeod is about as inconsistent as the team he plays for - great some nights, awful the next. In some bouts, McLeod will look like a monster, while in other he might look like he was airdropped into an unexpected situation. He's able to take down opponents with a wild flurry of punches, but he'll also find himself getting overpowered way too often for a guy his size. When he's on, though - don't mess with him.
7 Micheal Ferland
Micheal Ferland is only 23 years old, but he's already making his mark at the NHL level as a fighter. A dominant fighter in the WHL and the AHL, Ferland has now made the full-time jump to the pros and alongside Brandon Bollig has become one of the most fearsome fighters in the league. A big body with no brakes, Ferland is a wrecking ball with and without the gloves, playing a punishing brand of hockey and fighting with reckless abandon every time. He might leave himself open to some shots from some of the league's better fighters, but once it all comes together he'll be one of the best in the league - for a long time.
6 Matt Martin
Simply put, Matt Martin looks like a behemoth on skates. He's one of the league's biggest and best hitters, and that will often land him in situations where he'll have to scrap an enraged opponent. Martin will rarely have a loss hung on him, and his size and reach make him one of the league's toughest to square off against. Martin only fought ten times last season, but he was tagged with only one unofficial loss and took one some serious customers. There are few heavyweights as good as Matt Martin in the NHL today.
5 Jared Boll
Jared Boll is what we might call a "volume fighter". In his prime, Boll was dropping the gloves over 25 times a season, and even eclipsed 30 a few times. Some might say that wear and tear might cause Boll to break down completely, but he's still throwing hay-makers with the best of them and doing so at an elite level. Boll took on some top-end opponents last season and didn't suffer a single loss. Boll is a menace with the gloves off. He's able to come over the top or from underneath with a sweeping, hard right, all while manhandling his opponent with his left hand - making it easier to keep his opponent at bay, but still within striking distance.
4 Ryan Reaves
Ryan Reaves doesn't see as much ice-time as some of the names on this list, but when he's out there he's ready to do some damage - especially when the gloves come off. A massive body with a football background, Reaves pulls no punches and takes on all comers graciously - and usually sends them off to the box with a sore face. Last year he was practically unbeatable, running into trouble only when he faced Bollig and Peluso late in the season. However, Reaves has incredible knockout power and we've seen it on full display over the past couple of years.
3 Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson might not have the track record of some other guys on this list, but at 21 years old Wilson has already established himself as one of the best fighters in the league. Wilson plays a similar style to Ferland - but on overdrive. A hitting machine, he'll often find himself getting harassed by angry opponents before squaring off with one of them - and oftentimes coming out of the battle the winner. He's only going to get better from here on out.
Wilson being this high on the list is a projection of what he might do this season now that he's established himself in the NHL. If he reaches that potential, he'll probably move closer to the top spot by seasons end.
2 Brandon Prust
Brandon Prust has earned the title of being the smartest, most effective fighter in the NHL. While most go out swinging like madmen, Prust enters each fight and calculates each move he makes. He'll rarely get his clock cleaned and he'll often inflict some damage on his opponents. His balance is remarkable and even though he's one of the smaller fighters in the league, big guys can't seem to move him very far off his spot. Alongside Derek Dorsett, Prust will make the Canucks a very tough team to play against.
1 Zdeno Chara
Think of it this way: Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman might not pick off many passes anymore, but they are still considered the best corners in the NFL because quarterbacks simply avoid them.
The same applies to Zdeno Chara. Chara used to fight relatively often, until people realized it was not worth the physical abuse and humiliation they were about to endure. Chara has bloodied more faces and rag-dolled more bodies than we can remember. Because of his reputation and the fact that he's a giant on skates, opponents have wisely learned to turn the other cheek against the big Slovak.
Before too long someone will make the mistake of pissing off Chara enough for him to come out of fighting hibernation - and when he does, it will probably be a glorious beating.