It appears that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a real chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season and end what is currently the longest playoff drought in the NHL.
They also fight more than any team in the league.
These two points lead me to a very simple question: What impact have those fights had on their ability to win hockey games this season?
If you're somebody like Hockey Night In Canada analyst Don Cherry, you probably believe it's a large impact (and he's made that argument more than once on his weekly Coach's Corner segment).
I've seen/heard more than one argument this year that one of the many reasons for Nazem Kadri's breakout performance is the presence of Colton Orr on the roster (and at times, shockingly, on his line), and Kadri's confidence in knowing that other teams aren't going to mess with him and that Orr can "help create space" for the young forward due to his physical play.
(Nevermind the fact that Kadri has been awesome without Orr on the ice with him this season -- or the fact that Kadri had to fight Victor Hedman last week with Orr on the ice with him.)
These are the types of arguments that tend to get made when the subject of fighting comes up. It helps to police and clean up the game. It can change momentum in a game. It can help set the tone for a game.
I'm pretty indifferent when it comes to fighting in hockey. I'm not a proponent of taking steps toward banning it, but I also wouldn't really put up much of a fuss if the NHL did by kicking and screaming about how they're making the game softer. I don't know that it would change my interest in the game one bit if it left and never came back.
I do know that if I'm running a team I wouldn't designate a roster spot or cap space to player whose only value is his ability to fight. I also wouldn't look at my opponent dressing a fighter on his fourth line and feeling the need to counter it with a fighter of my own. Actually, I'd look at that as an area I could exploit by putting a more talented player on the ice against him and knowing that those are a few minutes out of the game that I'm going to hold the upper hand.
But let's get back to the Leafs for a minute. I went back through every game sheet from this season and noted every fighting major they've had this season, the situation it took place (period, score, time remaining), and whether or not the Maple Leafs won or lost the game. This is, after all, the goal -- to win the hockey game.
In total they've had 20 fighting majors this season, and there were some interesting things that stood out regarding when they took place and whether or not it changed anything in the game.
Keep in mind of course that this is just one team and these are some small sample sizes.
For one, the Maple Leafs have had seven fights in the first five minutes of games this season (those fights happened over six games -- one game featured two fights in the opening five minutes. They lost that game), the type of fight that is often cited as "setting the tone" for a game. This seems like a large number, and more often than not it was Orr involved in the skirmish.
The Maple Leafs' record in those games: 1-5. One win. Five losses.
So much for setting the tone.
You could always counter that stat by by pointing out that their opponents are 5-1 in those games. But the Maple Leafs are the common denominator here and it's not really benefiting them in anyway when it comes to the ultimate objective: Winning the game.
Six of their fights have taken place in the third period of games, and four of them came in games where the Maple Leafs were either winning or losing two or more goals at the time.
The win probability for a team that has a two-goal lead at any point in the third period has to be pretty high, and it's probably a safe bet to believe those games weren't changing whether a fight took place or not.
Three of those fights took place in the same game, a 6-0 dismantling of Montreal earlier this season, and all of them occurred after the Leafs had already built a four-goal lead. The game was already over at that point. Another took place with nine minutes to play in a game they were losing by three goals. The last one came early in the third period of a game they were losing 2-0 in the third and still lost. That was also one of the games that featured a fight in the opening five minutes.
These two points (the first five minute fights and the third period fights) mean that more than half of Toronto's 20 fighting majors this season took place either in the first five minutes of games they would go on to lose, or in the third period of games that were already all but decided.
So what was the point?
Is it going to stop other teams from taking liberties in future games, or perhaps set some sort of tempo for the next night? I honestly have no idea, but there's little evidence to suggest that it will.
I bring all of this up because of a brief exchange that took place on Tuesday afternoon between TSN's Ryan Rishaug and hockey blogger Tyler Dellow. Rishaug was singing the praises of Vancouver's Aaron Volpatti for being a gamer and fighting after a big hit in a game his team was down by three goals in the third period. Dellow was having none of it and called it a sideshow, and eventually posted a study (after the argument went in a "shows what you know" direction) he did using the 2010-11 season. His findings were that fights simply did not take place in high-leverage situations (usually it's mentioned that teams stop fighting in the playoffs, but they really don't fight in any meaningful situation in any game) and that there's no gamesmanship involved, and they're really not impacting the game.
That seems to be the exact case here with the Maple Leafs.
Of the Maple Leafs 20 fights this season I would count one of them as having taken place in a high leverage situation: Frazer McLaren fighting Buffalo's John Scott four minutes into the third period of their game on Feb. 21 with the Leafs leading 2-1. They would go on to win the game 3-1.
I'm not naive enough to suggest that a fight has never, in the history of the sport, changed the course of a hockey game. One that stands out was Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal when Max Talbot fought Danny Carcillo in a game the Flyers were controlling 3-0. The Penguins rallied for five straight goals after that fight to win the game and clinch the series. It's just that examples like that seem to be few and far between and there are far more examples of fights that were simply ... well, sideshows.
The Maple Leafs are a great story so far this season, but their success isn't due to their willingness to fight people more than any other team. It isn't intimidating opponents, or softening them up, or creating space for Nazem Kadri. Their success has more to do with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, for the time being, solidifying a position that has been a devastating weakness for the past eight years (goalie), trading a disappointing defenseman (Luke Schenn) for one of the NHL's leading goal-scorers (James van Riemsdyk), and because young players like Nazem Kadri are showing they belong in the NHL.
It's their goaltending and skill that has them in a playoff position. Not the fisticuffs of players like Colton Orr, Mike Brown, and Frazer McLaren. Frankly, they would probably be even better without them.