There were plenty of interesting storylines to emerge from the second of the Sharks' pair of training camp scrimmages over the weekend. Daniil Tarasov bolstered his case to make the team by scoring twice, Matt Nieto flashed his world-class speed on a breakaway goal and Tyler Kennedy served notice that he deserves an everyday spot in the lineup. Unfortunately, most of that was overshadowed by a non-fight between John Scott and Taylor Doherty that opened up a platform for the 6'8" enforcer to discuss his supposedly valuable role on the team and in the league.
"If someone goes out there and they know I’m on the other bench, I think they’re going to think twice about running around that game," Scott told the media following the scrimmage. "Whether it’s a clean hit or a dirty hit, I don’t think those guys are going to be as brave or running around as much. It’s always going to be important I think to have guys patrol the ice. I know no one likes to hear that, but we have skilled guys. Other [teams] have skilled guys. I don’t like when teams take liberties and take runs."
In fairness to Scott, it's entirely reasonable that he would buy into the mythology that surrounds fighting when his fists are the only reason he's anywhere near the NHL. When viewed through that lens, it's also somewhat understandable why Doug Wilson would sign him in the first place, claiming Scott's "presence alone can act as a deterrent," after a season in which several of his key players were injured on dirty hits.
The problem is that the entire notion fighters deter violence or bring "an element of security," as Todd McLellan phrased it yesterday, is completely, demonstrably untrue.
Despite the constant assertion that an enforcer's presence deters opposing teams from taking liberties, teams with an enforcer in the lineup are actually slightly more likely to have one of their players injured on a play that earns its perpetrator supplemental discipline from the NHL than teams without an enforcer in the lineup. Similarly, there is a slight positive correlation between a team's number of fighting majors accrued and its man games lost to injury. And as for the notion that enforcers at the very least keep players honest and mitigate nasty stick and skate fouls, there exists zero correlation between the number of fighting majors a team is assessed and the number of non-obstruction penalties (boarding, kneeing, slashing, spearing, etc.) they draw.
None of the commonly accepted strategic purposes of fighting are substantiated by evidence. So dressing multiple players who have no value outside of their facepunching ability, particularly in a salary cap league where successful teams are getting the most out of their depth, seems counterproductive at best and a terrible allocation of resources at worst. While Scott suggested yesterday that he wouldn't be in the league if he couldn't play, there simply isn't any evidence that he can do so effectively at the NHL level. Scott has scored two goals in 236 career games, a pitiful output even after accounting for his lack of ice time. His teams have consistently been heavily outshot and outscored with him on the ice.
It would be bad enough if Scott was the only such player on the Sharks roster but the team also employs Mike Brown and Adam Burish, two others who bring nothing to the table outside of fisticuffs and ambiguously-defined "grit." Brown in particular has actually been even worse than Scott in terms of on-ice shot and goal differential over his career while Burish has one goal and three points in 67 games with San Jose. Yet all three of these guys are virtually guaranteed roster spots while the likes of Tarasov, Freddie Hamilton, Chris Tierney and Tye McGinn are forced to duke it out for a place on the club.
The sixteen teams that made the playoffs last season used their fourth lines (defined as the forwards who ranked 10th through 12th in average ice time) for an average of 10:47 a night. Either the Sharks are going to ice some combination of Scott, Brown and Burish for nearly 18% of every game, significantly reducing their time of possession and significantly increasing the odds of them getting scored on for a hefty chunk of minutes, or they'll need to overtax their top players relative to other teams while the ones they're chasing like the Ducks and Blackhawks roll fourth lines staffed with players they're comfortable using for well over 11 minutes per game. It might seem silly to worry about who plays on the fourth line but, even apart from the obvious concern that injuries immediately turn fourth-liners into third-liners, it's clear that the best teams in the league are getting valuable contributions from that lineup spot. Mike Richards centered Los Angeles' fourth line in their run to the Cup last season while Chicago's fourth line featured skilled players like Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Dave Bolland the year prior.
Even Brian Burke, champion of all that is truculent, recognized the league's shift towards skilled fourth-liners and the gradual extinction of one-dimensional fighters more than two years ago when he placed Colton Orr on waivers as general manager of the Maple Leafs. For an even more relevant example, let's turn to Darryl Sutter, head coach of the very team the Sharks ostensibly spent the summer stockpiling goons in response to.
"It's a diminished role," Sutter said of fighting in an interview with Kings Insider back in late 2012. "It's like I told those young kids [Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford], they're not fighting anybody. There's like five or six of those guys left in the league to play two or three minutes a night. We'd rather those guys be on the ice because then we can take advantage of it. If it's just about staged fighting, I'm not into that."
If old-school hockey guys like Burke and Sutter accept this, why don't the Sharks?
To be fair, McLellan was encouragingly reserved when discussing Scott's attributes yesterday and surprisingly noncommital regarding the security of his spot on the roster. So perhaps it's possible the team will waive Scott when it becomes abundantly clear he doesn't belong in the league but given that Wilson signed him to a one-way deal for well above league minimum and extolled his virtues as a deterrent, I wouldn't count on it.
What's bizarre is that the team's decision to sign Scott, to extend Brown and to not use their remaining compliance buyout on Burish seems entirely at odds with their stated goal of ushering in a youth movement. Scott's presence doesn't deter violence so much as it deters a young (and, not to mention, vastly superior) forward like Tarasov or Tierney's ability to make the team. As it stands, the only way Scott is going to protect a skilled Sharks player from getting injured in the NHL this season is by stealing his roster spot.