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GREGG KRUPA

Gregg Krupa: Fighters are a vanishing breed in NHL

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings intend to fly with even less protection this season, fewer tough guys to deter aggression from opponents against their lineup that includes veteran, frequently-injured stars like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Not that the Red Wings have done much fighting in recent seasons. But with Todd Bertuzzi gone and Jordin Tootoo catching on with the Devils, their ability to "keep the flies off" the stars and make the other guys pay when they take too many liberties, is only more constrained on a roster that places even more emphasis on speed and puck possession.

With personnel decisions fast and furious in the NHL the past week, however, a question arises: Are the Red Wings actually the model and is the rest of the NHL catching up?

Across the NHL, tough guys, including Shawn Thornton, Jay Rosehill, George Parros, Colton Orr, Frazer MacLaren and Kevin Westgarth, are either without jobs or, in Thornton's case, with a new team.

The Bruins and the Maple Leafs say they are reducing their traditional emphasis on aggression and intimidation.

Last season, the teams were first and second in fighting majors, the Maple Leafs with 48 and Bruins with 46.

Now, both are talking about playing quicker, more skilled games.

"I think a lot of teams are looking for players that can do both," Bruins coach Claude Julien said Thursday before playing the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

"You know, in this new NHL, a player that can defend his teammates, you also want him to be able to play and give him at least some decent minutes."

That was Tootoo's problem. His game was too one-dimensional.

For 18 years, Bertuzzi was precisely the player Julien describes, a skilled and physical forward. But 39 is old in the NHL, especially having played like that.

Pacifist Red Wings

The number of NHL games with a fight fell to 29.76 percent last season, according to HockeyFights.com, the lowest since 2005-06. It has been as high as 40 percent recently.

The Red Wings had the fewest fights, with seven, one less than the Hurricanes, three less than the Devils and nine less than the Blackhawks.

Brendan Smith fought twice and Tootoo, Drew Miller, Justin Abdlekader, Kyle Quincy and Daniel Cleary once each.

Bertuzzi might not have fought, but other teams knew he could, and often that is just as good.

Smith proved that in the playoffs, as he willingly tempted fate with the gargantuan Zdeno Chara. The result was he and Chara went to the penalty box — together.

Smith helped establish the precedent a team not interested in fighting might, regardless, when absolutely necessary.

"There's still a place for it in the game," Smith said. "You look at a guy like (Boston's Milan) Lucic who is a big man, who is a hell of a player, who puts up lots of points. But then, he is one of the toughest guys in the league, as well.

"But the traditional, whatever you want to call them, I guess goon, or enforcer, or whatever, sometimes their skills aren't as high."

Jonathan Ericsson has fought and has the size to grapple in other ways with big opponents.

"Specialty teams nowadays are so important, too," Ericsson said. "You really can't afford to take any penalties. I think that's a big key in maybe way guys are getting rid of their tough guys.

"I think the Red Wings haven't been, since maybe (Joey) Kocur and (Bob) Probert's time, anywhere near the fighting teams."

If an even greater lack of deterrence concerns him, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is keeping it to himself.

Asked about the Bruins physical play and whether his team's increased team speed can counter it, he steered away.

"I guess what I would tell you is that the Bruins just play right," he said. "When I watch them, I like the way they play. They're organized. They've got good players. They play hard. I like their game

"(Boston) just won a one-goal game (over the Flyers on Wednesday). That's what they do, every night. That's what good teams do, they find a way to win games."

More skill needed

Saying teams increasingly consider the pugilists unnecessary, analysts are dubbing it a trend.

"Teams want to possess the puck," Keith Jones said Tuesday on NBCSN. "And if you can't handle the puck, there's a good chance you're not going to be in the lineup.

"So, if you fight, you have to be also able to play."

On the same broadcast, Mike Milbury — once a pugnacious player for a pugnacious team, the Bruins of the late 1970s — was ready to declare the day of fighting in hockey dead.

"It's telling me that it's time to get rid of fighting," Milbury said. "It's telling me that it's over."

Whether it would lead to even more brutality on the ice because teams can not deter opponents is an arguable point. In a game as quick and physical as hockey, played by men who are increasingly big, strong and fast, fighting has its place.

But the Red Wings seem destined to rely even more on speed, finesse and power play goals for deterrence.

Sometimes it works. But it also tends to leave Zetterberg and Datsyuk exposed.

How it plays out over the season will be among the factors in the Red Wings success.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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