The gap between the top tier players in the NHL and those at the bottom of the league is quite large. The skill set that’s required for a first line star player to post 50 goals or 80 assists in single season is quite different from that of a fourth line enforcer who would be lucky to reach 50 goals for his entire career. However, as we enter into a new era for the NHL that puts less emphasis on fighting and physical play and more emphasis on skill, that skill gap is slowly closing.
The days when every NHL team carried at least one enforcer to stick on their fourth line and play only a couple of minutes per night are behind us. Over the last four seasons the amount of fights in the NHL has dropped off from 87 through the first 136 games in 2012-13, to 70 in 2013-14, to 55 last season to just 33 through the same amount of games in 2015-16. Between the Department of Player Safety’s crackdown on illegal play and teams putting a premium on puck possession, many of the league’s 30 teams have figured out that roster spots are better utilized on skilled players that can actually contribute than on fighters whose only purpose was to protect their stars from non existent cheap shots.
There are very few enforcers left on NHL rosters. Gone are the Brian McGrattons and Colton Orrs of the world. The 15 worst players currently in the NHL is made up of the few enforcers who remain on teams that refuse to embrace change, as well as few players who’ve seen their play decline in a possession driven era, and a few whom time has passed by. Here are 15 players who no longer have a place in the NHL.
15. Josh Gorges
Gorges was highly touted during his prime years for the Montreal Canadiens, but the truth is he has never been a defenseman whose play drives possession. That was no more evident than in his first season in Buffalo in 2014-15 in which his 34.5 Corsi For % was last among defensemen who received at least 50 minutes in ice time. That means that when Gorges was on the ice, his opponents attempted 65.5 % of the shots. If that’s not enough to convince you old school folks, Gorges posted zero goals and just six assists in 46 games in 2014-15 and was a minus-28.
14. Dave Bolland
The oft injured centre was loved by the media during his one season in Toronto for his “grit”, “leadership”, and other attributes that don’t win hockey games. He was limited by injuries to 23 games and failed to drive possession, with a Corsi For % of 44.9 in the games he did play.
The Florida Panthers rewarded Bolland with a five-year, $27.5 million contract in the summer of 2014. He scored just six goals and 23 points in 53 games with the Panthers in 2014-15 and it figures to be a long four years for the Panthers before Bolland is off their roster.
13. Bryan Bickell
It seemed like a mistake to many when the Blackhawks handed Bickell a four year, $16 million contract in the summer of 2013 after a Stanley Cup run in which his playoff goal total was equal to his regular season total of nine. Bickell had never scored more than 17 goals and 37 points in an NHL season and one playoff run didn’t seem to warrant a $4 million/year salary.
Fast forward two years and Bickell has been a major disappointment for the Blackhawks. He posted just 28 points in 2014-15 and zero goals in the team’s 2015 Stanley Cup playoff run. Prior to the 2015-16 season the Blackhawks placed Bickell on waivers. After he went unclaimed he was kept on Chicago’s roster, but was held scoreless in his first seven games and demoted to Rockford.
12. Brandon Bollig
The Calgary Flames are one of the few NHL teams who still believe in having an enforcer in their lineup, so much so that had three of them on their roster in 2014-15 in Bollig, Deryk Engelland, and Brian McGratton. While McGratton is no longer there, the other two remain.
Bollig is in just his fifth NHL season and his third full season, but his numbers don’t exactly inspire confidence of an improvement. He went from being a decent puck possession player on one of the league’s top puck possession teams in Chicago to being a terrible puck possession player on one of the league’s worst puck possession teams in Calgary where he has just six points in 72 games.
11. Shawn Thornton
Thornton was viewed by some as the head of the NHL enforcer class for much of his career due to his ability to actually play a regular shift without it costing his team. Thornton was a regular in the playoffs on Stanley Cup winning teams in Anaheim and Boston and he even posted a career high 10 goals and 20 points for the Bruins in 2010-11.
Those days are clearly behind the 38-year-old who appears to just be playing out his final NHL days with the Florida Panthers.
10. Mike Brown
Mike Brown’s biggest accomplishment during his nine year NHL career was growing a Wendel Clark-esque moustache when he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That is the only part of Clark’s game that Brown has emulated. Brown has never posted more than eight points in a season and his puck possession numbers have always left a lot to be desired.
As far as enforcers go, Brown is on the small side at 5-foot-11 which means he lacks the physical intimidation of other enforcers as well. He’s not big enough to enforce and not skilled enough to do anything else.
9. Chris Neil
For much of his career Chris Neil was more than just an agitator who got under the skin of his opponents, he was also a guy who could contribute on offense every now and then. He’s reached the 10-goal mark five times in 12 seasons with the Ottawa Senators. However Neil’s best days are clearly in the rearview mirror. Neil’s possession numbers and his playing time have both dropped off over the past two seasons. It’s about time the 36-year-old hangs up his skates.
8. David Clarkson
Clarkson was handed one of the worst contracts in NHL history in the summer of 2013 when the Maple Leafs signed him to a seven year, $36.75 million contract. Clarkson had one 30 goal season on his resume, but had never posted more than 17 goals and 32 points in any other season.
His two years in Toronto, where he became a puck possession blackhole, were a disaster. After 118 games, with just 15 goals, 26 points, and a Corsi For % of 44.1, Clarkson was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets for injured forward Nathan Horton. Clarkson doesn’t seem to be doing much to improve Columbus either.
7. Deryk Engelland
The Calgary Flames baffled many, including their own fans, when they signed Engelland to a three-year, $8.7 million contract in the summer of 2014. Engelland has received more playing time than most enforcers due to the fact that he’s spent most of his career playing defense – a position he has never been very good at.
Engelland’s 40.2 Corsi For % in 2014-15 was the worst on a Flames team that had the fifth worst Corsi For % in the league. Engelland is likely to play out the final two years of his deal, but after that the 33-year-old will have a hard time finding work elsewhere.
6. Tim Jackman
The 33-year-old winger is another one of a dying breed of NHL enforcers whose career is coming to an end. Jackman has reached the 10 goal mark and 20 point plateau just once in his 12 year NHL career and hasn’t posted more than seven points in a season since 2010-11. He’s played just two scoreless games for the struggling Anaheim Ducks in 2015-16 and was placed on waivers on November 2nd. He’ll likely finish the season in the AHL.
5. Brad Stuart
There was a time when Brad Stuart was a pretty good NHL defenseman, contributing offensively and driving puck possession on some pretty good hockey teams, but those days have long since passed him by and Stuart has become a player where puck possession goes to die.
Stuart’s Corsi For % last season was an atrocious 38.9% and this season he’s somehow found a way to be even worse. In limited action he has a Corsi For % of just 31.3 %. From a point production standpoint the last two seasons have been the worst of Stuart’s career. At 36 years of age, it’s time for Stuart to hang up the skates.
4. Cody McLeod
McLeod is in his ninth season for the Colorado Avalanche which seems like a remarkably long time for a guy who contributes very little to the game of hockey. McLeod finished his first full NHL season with 15 goals and 20 points back in 2008-09, but he hasn’t reached the 10 goal or 20 point marks since. McLeod isn’t a solid driver of possession either (he finished last season with a Corsi For % of 39.7).
His only real claim to fame was a check from behind to Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall that landed him a five game suspension during the 2013-14 season. If the Avalanche ever want to turn things around, they need to cut bait with guys like Stuart and McLeod.
3. Zac Rinaldo
Rinaldo is in his fifth NHL season and has yet to reach the 10 point mark. He’s never averaged more than 8:55 in ice time in any season, but it’s hard to get a lot of playing time when you spend the amount of time in the penalty box that Rinaldo does. In his five seasons he’s the only player to have finished every season in the bottom five in penalties taken per 60 minutes.
Rinaldo contributes very little and when he is on the ice, he often leaves his team shorthanded. I’m not sure what the Bruins saw in Rinaldo to warrant trading a third round draft pick for him this past offseason, but it’s nothing that’s likely to win them any hockey games.
2. John Scott
The 6-foot-8 behemoth is basically a fighter on skates and has been used as such during his eight year NHL career. He has just five career goals and five career assists in 276 NHL games and has only played 50 or more games in a season twice. His notable achievements include getting on the wrong side of multiple Phil Kessel slashes in a preseason game and sucker punching no.6 on our list, Tim Jackman.
Scott was waived by his current team, the Arizona Coyotes, and went unclaimed at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. He remains in the NHL for the time being, but his NHL career is liking nearing its end.
1. Eric Boulton
Boulton is another one of those NHL enforcers who no longer has a place in a game he was never great at. Over the course of his 15 year NHL career, Boulton has posted 31 career goals and 79 points in 648 games with 1,419 minutes in penalties. He hasn’t played more than 23 games in a season since 2011-12 and has yet to play a single game in 2015-16 due to a lower body injury.
The New York Islanders re-signed the 39-year-old to a one year contract for this season, but when he is healthy he’s not likely to play much, if at all. He seems more like a waste of a roster spot and $575,000 in cap space at this point.
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