Hockey Fights - Analysis of Fighting in the NHL & the Outcomes
Whether it’s to pump up a flat team or to settle something on the ice, fighting is a part of hockey — even if it isn’t your cup of tea.
Fighting in the NHL is sometimes a misunderstood aspect of the game. Its importance can be lost on many new fans who only see the act of two men going toe-to-toe as savage, but the fact is that hockey fights play an important role in policing the game despite their constant decline in frequency over the years.
A Downward Trend for Fighting
Looking back at the last 20 years of NHL hockey, we see a peak in hockey fights per game in the 2001-02 season at 0.65 tilts per match. Since then, fighting has declined in each of the following seasons to just 0.15 fights per match in the 2020 season before jumping up to 0.22 bouts per game in the 2021 season. Only 19 per cent of NHL games featured an NHL fight in the 2021 season which is down by 66 per cent from 2001-02. So, why the drop in 5-minute fighting majors?
Since its peak in 2001-02, fighting has declined by 77 per cent in the 2019-20 season and by 66 per cent this current 2020-21 season.
Why has Fighting Decreased?
BUILT FOR IT
1) The game has changed
First off, the game has changed. No longer are we seeing one-dimensional players as every one of the dressed 12 forwards has to be able to contribute on the offensive side of things. Bottom-three forwards (where most traditional enforcers were found) are asked to play upwards of 10 minutes nowadays and need more skillsets than just throwing haymakers.
To add, the size of players has been less of a sticking point in the draft process as the league tries to promote skilled players more and smaller players are getting more looks. Gone are days of six-foot-four heavy-hitting defenseman and one-shift-a-game fourth-liners.
2) Some teams aren’t built for it
Secondly, some teams just aren’t built for a more physical game. Some general managers have abandoned the traditional “playoff-off hockey” blueprint and instead have turned to a faster, more skilful line-up.
Some may think that the NHL is trying to phase out the fisticuffs, but it simply isn’t true. Fighting acts as self-policing among players as opposing teams are not going to take cheap shots at your star players knowing someone is going to have to drop the mitts to even the score. Another reason that it won’t become extinct is the suspension process. Suspensions and fines are usually reserved for illegal hits and two consenting players will never get suspended or fined. Currently, the maximum fine in the NHL is US$5,000 which is laughably low compared to other professional leagues.
Hockey, in general, has become less physical over the last 20 years which explains the decrease in penalties, fines and suspensions.
Throwing the Most Punches
Over the last five seasons, the Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have been the busiest teams throwing punches. A lot of that has to do with personnel as players who don’t usually fight aren’t asked to throw down. Instead, it’s a select few skaters who hold the skillset to drop the gloves.
Only one player had more than six fights in 2021 while the Ottawa Senators led the way with 23 fights in 56 games followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning (23), New York Rangers (22), Anaheim Ducks (20) and Florida Panthers (18). Fighting doesn’t discriminate between good and bad teams as that list has the 2021 Stanley Cup champions as well as two of the worst teams (points per game) in Ottawa and Anaheim.
Click on team logos on the selector below to reveal the fighting statistic for each team and how they have changed over the last 20 years compared to the last five seasons.
Which Teams Benefit the Most from Fighting?
One of the main reasons for an NHL fight is to swing momentum. If a team is getting outplayed by its opponent, a player may start a fight in order to fire up his team and swing the momentum. It’s a hard scenario to quantify but, more times than not, a good tilly gets the boys going.
Use the team selector below to reveal the winning percentages for each NHL team for the last 5 years for games with fights versus games without fights.
Looking at the winning percentage differences in games that have fights versus games that don’t, we see a handful of teams that have substantially increased their winning percentage by dropping the mitts. It’s important we compare these two winning percentages because a team like Tampa Bay has a winning percentage of 62.0 when fighting but they have been one of the most-winningest teams in the league and actually win more when not fighting at 63.3 per cent.
The New Jersey Devils seem to benefit the most from fighting as they win 27.4 per cent more in games with a fight. They are followed by the Arizona Coyotes (+20.4 per cent), Winnipeg Jets (+16.1 per cent), Montreal Canadiens (+15.3 per cent) and the Boston Bruins (14.0 per cent). Of course, there are plenty of other factors that affect the outcome of a game, but a 20 per cent increase in winning a game is certainly something to take note of.
The Boston Bruins (+14.0 per cent) and the Ottawa Senators (+11.5 winning percentage) have the highest increase in winning percentage out of the top five most active fighting teams over the last five years, and may be taking advantage of the benefits of fighting better than other teams.
New Jersey Devils, Arizona Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets
The New Jersey Devils don’t fight a lot — just in 18 per cent of their games over the last five seasons — but when they do, they have increased their winning percentage substantially. The Devils have a 37.2 winning percentage in games without fights across the time of the data set but that number has jumped up to 66.6 per cent which is a massive 27.4 per cent increase in winning when New Jersey gets in a fight. The Arizona Coyotes have also struggled to play .500 hockey but they are winning 51.4 per cent of their games when they fight but winning just 40.7 of their matches without a fight. Saying that here, Arizona hasn’t been throwing as much as years past and finished with just 10 fights in 2021 which was a bottom-10 rate. Perhaps a few more tilts could go a long way for these two teams.
Which Teams Lose the Most from Fighting?
If one team is winning more games after fighting, then someone is losing them. Some teams are not built for the rough stuff and it shows in their winning percentage difference in games with fights versus games without fights.
Five teams have a 23 per cent or more decrease in winning when they engage in a hockey fight. That group is led by the Buffalo Sabres who struggle to win but have decreased their odds of victory by 57.1 per cent if they do fight. The rough stuff doesn’t do the Sabres any good apparently. Buffalo is followed by the Philadelphia Flyers (-35.8 per cent), Columbus Blue Jackets (-35.8 per cent), Minnesota Wild (-32.4 per cent) and the Edmonton Oilers (-23.2).
Of that group, just Minnesota and Edmonton are fighting the most and sit in the top 10 in games with fights over the last five seasons. Buffalo has one of the lowest fighting rates in the league which may be beneficial to them as they are losing 57.1 per cent more when they do fight.
Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets
Winning hasn’t been easy for the Sabres and they enter the 2021-22 season as arguably one of the worst teams in the league. But they do benefit from their lack of physical play as they fought second-fewest times in 2021 and have an incredible 57.1 per cent chance of winning in games where they don’t fight. It is just an increase of 13.4 per cent but, when you’re winning only 23.6 per cent of the games that you fight in, winning 37.1 per cent of games in which you don’t fight is a massive difference.
Philadelphia has fought in nearly one in five games over the last five years but less fighting could mean more winning for them. Philly is winning 35.8 per cent more than when they do fight. A 37.7 winning percentage in games with a fight is nothing to be proud of. Maybe the Bullies should clean up their act and pick up more wins.
The Future of Fighting in the NHL
The future of fighting in the NHL is a sensitive subject. Some see the act as archaic while hockey diehards and old-schoolers see it as a part of the game’s traditions. There is no argument about the decrease in fights over the last 20 seasons as the data speaks for itself, but the removal of the mitt drop is far from a sure thing. It is becoming a lesser of the game, that’s for sure, but a mutually agreed upon NHL hockey fight may not be going anywhere anytime soon as players use it as an opportunity to prove themselves to their teams.
If fights don’t exist, players like Tom Wilson can create havoc with low repercussions and laughable fines. Hockey is a physical game and fighting helps keep things in check to a degree. Some teams will fight more than others, but at some point almost every team will need to step up and drop the gloves to right a situation.
OnlineGambling.ca compiled hockey fight data on number of fights per game, number of games with or without fights, winning percentages for each NHL team as well as penalties, fines and suspensions data for the last 20 seasons.
Data correct as of June 2021.