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The Canucks don't need a fighter

I intended to show up a little more in the past week and expose judgment on all the free agent signings made by the Vancouver Canucks, but few are worth little more than mention. There's, as always, a certain degree of hopefulness that one of these players will be a difference-maker for the Canucks in Game 108 of the season, but the reality is that, when your General Manager is signing players to contracts that you can't even remember what team they play for, he's scraping the clammy substance out of the bottom of the free agent bucket.

Marco Sturm is serviceable and versatile if he can stay healthy and Alexander Sulzer is dependable as a bottom-pairing defenseman with somewhat sheltered minutes. It's absolutely fine with me that Mike Gillis has stayed quiet, since I do think that a lot of the younger Canucks have earned at least an open spot on the roster to step up, and, if they can't crack it with the big club, trade them while the championship window is open. They can't be spending the prime years of the Sedins and Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo babying Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder into the lineup. Unless Mason Raymond's percentages turn around next season, the Canucks are dry on that second line and they'll need another guy who can score and provide the Sedins decent lineup protection and draw away at least a few matchups.

However, if you've read certain rumours yesterday, it seems like Gillis is more interested in giving the Sedins a different sort of protection. The Canucks are reportedly in the mix for Cam Janssen, according to the Twitter account of JP Rutherford. Janssen played 54 games last year, scored four points and was a minus-6 with 131 PIMs in 4:52 of playing time per game.

There's a noble sentiment that surrounds the fighter. He's the first line of defense against a superstar and risks his health to provide better space for the team's scorers. He doesn't make a lot of money and came from humble beginnings in hockey. He made the decision in his teenage years to one day become the security guard for a player he could only hope to be.

His role is diminishing, and the game, simply put, has no more use for the pugilist on ice. This is what Cam Janssen is, a player with no redeeming qualities to prevent him from being a total liability. Despite starting many of his shifts in the offensive zone, a large amount of scoring chances are counted against him regardless. This is not useful at any time, whether its Game One of the regular season or Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals.

It wasn't long ago that a team needed to have a North American Captain to win the Stanley Cup. It was a belief so ingrained into our beliefs as sports fans and crept up every year that Markus Naslund would address the media from his locker after the Canucks' exit. That long-held belief has gone by the wayside after a four year span in which the Cup was initially lifted by a Swede and a Slovak. Fewer teams are employing the goon to keep their players protected, and with good reason. The r-squared (correlative) value between fights and wins this past regular season was .011. In the last ten years, the Canucks have shown an ability to win in seasons that they score a lot of goals (r-squared value of .582) and not necessarily an ability to win in seasons they rack up a lot of fight totals (r-squared of .081).

There's even a lower correlation in the previous 10 Canucks seasons between goal total and fighting majors (r-squared of .052). Oddly enough, one of the first signings Mike Gillis made as the General Manager of the Canucks was to bring aboard Darcy Hordichuk, but under Gillis' watch, the Canucks have seen their fighting totals dip from 63 in the 2009 season to just 33 this past season (this is including playoffs) and it has worked out quite well for them.

There are still some goons who have the ability to do other things which influence possession: Zenon Konopka, aside from being a total brainstem, is a faceoff wizard. Brandon Prust is a semi-reliable scorer in his own right for the New York Rangers. I maintain an ideology that these teams are better served by these thugs' actual talents. A post up on Puck Podcast does a great job at breaking down these players' talents. It is also required reading.
"After being one of the most-injured teams in the League last year, the Oilers brought in Steve MacIntyre to try to discourage players taking liberties with their stars, particularly the gaggle of youngsters who’d just joined the club. MacIntyre played in just 34 games, recorded only seven fights, and averaged three and a half minutes per game. Meanwhile, the Oilers were again one of the most-injured teams in the League. Their best player, Ales Hemsky, still missed significant time with concussion and shoulder problems, and in a cruel twist of irony, young star Taylor Hall wound up injuring himself for the rest of the season trying to fight one of the [top eleven fighters in the NHL]!* So much for that deterrent."

Determination does not buy wins. If it did, the last-place teams full of pluggers would be in the playoff hunt well-past the All-Star break and teams littered with well-meaning but effectively useless players such as Edmonton or St. Louis would not see their stars drop to injury. A lot of bad teams employ several of these characters since they have no ability to fill a hole with anybody else, and it is certainly not in Mike Gillis' best interest to follow that model. The Canucks have some cap space and a couple of young, scoring forwards who have the ability to play, something that Cam Janssen lacks. It's not like Janssen can win faceoffs or has anything but a low Corsi (on-ice shot attempt differential) even for a fourth liner. He's just a pretty poor player, whose one negotiable talent has become meaningless.

There may have been a time when a fighter was important, just as there was once a time when people listened to Glam Metal without a hint of irony. It's the end of an era, and the Vancouver Canucks are better off exploiting nostalgic teams who have yet to join the post-lockout NHL.


*The top eleven fighters were listed by number of fighting majors. None of them played for a team that made it past the first round, and only George Parros, Kyle Clifford and Kevin Westgarth played on teams that made the playoffs.