Cody McLeod fights Matt Martin

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Hartnett: Rangers Need To Realize Enforcers Like Cody McLeod Are Obsolete In Today's NHL

Sean Hartnett
January 14, 2019 - 1:27 pm
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There’s no reason why this should still be a debate in 2019. There was a time when conventional wisdom dictated that every NHL team required an enforcer.

That time has long passed. Hockey has evolved and any organization that doesn’t keep up with the times will be left behind on the ice. The sport is now played with blistering pace and you can’t hit what you can’t catch.

The league’s best teams roll four scoring lines and attempt to divide ice time fairly evenly across four lines. That’s not something that the Rangers are doing this season when they dress gritty forward Cody McLeod, who is averaging just 7:17 time on ice per game.

McLeod has suited up in 25 of 45 games for the Rangers. A fractured left hand caused the 34-year-old to miss 14 games. Through 25 games, McLeod has recorded one point – a goal scored on Nov. 21 against the rival Islanders. He has accumulated 56 penalty minutes.

There is one statistic that McLeod leads the NHL in: fighting majors. McLeod and Ottawa Senators’ towering defenseman Ben Harpur share the league lead with five fighting majors. Harpur has dressed for 24 games for the Senators, collecting one goal and one assist. His 0.08 points-per-game is a shade better than McLeod’s 0.04 points-per-game.

Aside from his pugilistic qualities, McLeod is known for his physicality and effort. When you watch the Rangers, it’s clear that no. 8 is one of the hardest working players on the ice and attempts to energize his team with hard-hitting checks. His 3.4 hits per game leads the Rangers on average.

When the Rangers lost 7-5 to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday, McLeod skated for just 6:51 of total ice time. McLeod was left without a dance partner to tussle with. The 27-15-3 Blue Jackets have six fighting majors through 45 games, that’s tied for 25th highest total in the NHL.

A good fourth-liner should be expected to offer his coach an alternative option when his top nine forwards are struggling. When the Rangers were a more competitive team, skilled fourth-liners Michael Grabner, Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Jesper Fast were able to step comfortably into second line duty when previous head coach Alain Vigneault felt necessary to shake things up.

It really begs the question – what kind of value is McLeod providing for David Quinn’s Rangers at a $750,000 cap charge? He doesn’t have the touch or nose for the net to score goals. There was a time when he scored 15 goals in his sophomore season with the Colorado Avalanche, but the days of him putting up 20, 18 or 13 points in a full season have long passed. These days, he’s a very limited offensive player.

Back in his Colorado days, McLeod offered additional value to the Avs’ lineup by serving as an occasional penalty-killer. Since the Rangers claimed McLeod from the Nashville Predators last January, he has skated in 50 games for the Blueshirts and has stepped onto the ice for a grand total of 27 seconds on the power play and two seconds on the penalty kill. So, he isn’t providing any kind of special teams value for the Rangers.

Compare his $750,000 salary to others around the league. The Blue Jackets signed former Ranger wing Anthony Duclair to a one-year, $650,000 free-agent contract in the 2018 summer. Duclair has provided 15 points (10 goals, five assists) through 39 games, including four power-play goals. He also happened to score against the Blueshirts in Sunday’s victory.

The Edmonton Oilers also found an excellent bargain after bringing in right wing Alex Chiasson on a professional tryout and signing him to a one-year, $650,000 contract in October. Chiasson has registered 22 points (17 goals, five assists) through 36 games, including six-power play goals. The 28-year-old is playing in all situations for Edmonton and has even scored one shorthanded goal.

Shrewd signings like Chiasson and Duclair show that general managers can find solid production at bargain basement prices.

It’s no coincidence that the majority of the league’s worst teams are carrying recognized enforcers.

According to HockeyFights.com, the Senators rank first in the NHL with 17 fighting majors followed by the Rangers with 15 fighting majors. The 17-24-5 Senators are near the Eastern Conference cellar with 39 points, one point above the Philadelphia Flyers – who have played one less game. The 18-20-7 Rangers aren’t faring too much better at 43 points, having gone 3-6-1 in their last 10 games to spiral out of the Wild Card race.

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Meanwhile, the Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are tied with the least fighting majors with four apiece. If the season ended today, the 28-16-4 Golden Knights and 28-14-2 Maple Leafs would make the playoffs. The 22-18-5 Hurricanes have gone an impressive 7-3-0 in their last 10 games to pull within four points of the final Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference with 49 points through 45 games. The Canes have played one less game than the Montreal Canadiens, who have collected 53 points through 46 games – and have only been whistled for seven fighting majors.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been far and away the league’s most dominant team at 35-9-2 and 72 points through 46 games. Tampa Bay does not carry a skater whose primary skill is enforcement. The Lightning are tied for the 25th fewest fights in the NHL with six fighting majors.

Cedric Paquette and Yanni Gourde have each been involved in two scraps, but these are also players who provide scoring. Gourde has collected 28 points through 46 games, while Paquette has managed 10 points through 45 contests. Paquette’s 0.92 goals per 60 minutes is eighth-best among Tampa Bay skaters.

Teams like the Senators and Rangers are still clinging to the dated notion that enforcers are a necessity. Hockey has changed. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, fighting is down across the league by nearly two-thirds over the last 10-plus seasons.

In the modern NHL, teams must get with the times or risk being left behind.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey