The NHL deserves criticism for a lot of its administrative decisions, from the way it handles sexual abuse allegations, to the way it goes about changing some of its rules. But I think the league deserves some credit for fostering a drop-off in fighting that has lead to fighting being at its lowest rate in over 15 years.
Over the last decade or so, the league has gradually increased the penalties for different types of fighting infractions. These days, players not only have to have jerseys tied, they have to have their helmets on, and additional match penalties are now assessed for a number of different reasons, including if a fighter injures or cuts another player. Really though, the larger and more important influence on the reduction of the role of fighting is simply the amount of speed and skill required to be an effective NHL player. Although this may appear to be an organic and perhaps even lucky development, the league's attempts at putting more emphasis on skill seem to be having the effect of reducing fighting, and for that, they deserve some credit.
Although players are just as tall as ever, their weight has been dropping, a fact that suggests that teams are training and conditioning their players to be leaner and faster, as opposed to stronger and more able to beat people up. The goons are no doubt still out there, but the overall culture is changing, and the league as a whole deserves some credit for that.
As something of a traditionalist, I've never been one to demand the complete removal of fighting from the game at any level. Fights are certainly entertaining, and can add an interesting dimension to a game's (or a playoff series') narrative. But most fans can agree that goon fights eroded most of the excitement of fighting. They contributed nothing to the story of the game, and only interrupted the aspects of the game that are most entertaining, like scoring goals, or your team winning.
Entertainment value aside, what we have learned in recent years about the effects of repeated hits to the head and their connection to degenerative brain diseases should certainly give us pause when cheering on fights. Although the odd tussle is unlikely to have severe long-term effects on a person's cognitive abilities and mental health, I would prefer not to see more cases like that of Wade Belak.
Leafs representative of a larger trend
This shift is perhaps more noticeable for Leafs' fans, in that their team has gone from leading the league in fights to being fourth last in fighting majors. Some of the credit for that goes to a front office that has made a point of retaining hockey talent and letting go of on-ice boxers, but another important part of this is the influence of Mike Babcock. Whether or not Babcock has issued explicit orders about fighting, he certainly appears to be encouraging a different type of culture around fighting.
It was only two seasons ago that Randy Carlyle's vision for the Leafs included having the most fighting majors in the league, and although Babcock certainly isn't opposed to fighting, the drop-off has been remarkable, and it's likely no coincidence that his former team the Detroit Red Wings are dead last in terms of fights.
The fact that the Leafs have fought 4 times in their last 6 games is interesting in that at first glance it would appear that the Leafs are starting to feel more truculent of late. On the other hand, considering that at least two of these fights were challenges issued rather emphatically by opponents, it seems more likely that the Leafs are simply seeing a certain amount of random variation in their extra-curricular activities.
Whether or not the Leafs' recent spate of punch-ups is indicative of a trend that will continue after the All-Star break remains to be seen, and will likely hinge on who gets to play for the Buds after the trade deadline. Rich Clune, for instance, already has one fight for the Leafs and has come close on several other occasions, but may wind up playing more often at the Ricoh depending on which players leave at the deadline. Roman Polak is another potential deadline target, and also doesn't mind the odd scrap, and so may influence things further.
Utlimately, I'm happy to see the Leafs focusing somewhat more on playing hockey, and that management seems to want to promote players with that same mindset. This team has enough to worry about just trying to find the back of their opponents' nets.