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AHL rule changes: the end of the enforcer?

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Can the nature of the game in the AHL really be changed with suspensions for fighting?

AHL fight leader Mike Liambas in a pre-season game. He has never dressed for a regular season NHL game.
AHL fight leader Mike Liambas in a pre-season game. He has never dressed for a regular season NHL game.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The AHL Board of Governors met recently and changed some rules, added a team, and sorted out this year's playoff format.

Teams and Playoff Format

The new team, the Tucson Roadrunners (meep meep), will play in the Pacific division. The five California teams in that division plus the Tucson team will play fewer games, leaving us all to rely on the points percentage to tell who is winning for another year.

The playoff format is being simplified to make the top four in each division qualify, so no more "cross-over" teams, but there is the chance that poorer teams will make the playoffs over better teams in stacked divisions.

The Western Conference has 16 teams and the Eastern has 14, and no realignment was done with this addition. When Las Vegas adds their team, we should expect that issue to be revisited. The other new name to learn is the Springfield Thunderbirds; they are the Florida Panthers team who moved into the city vacated by Arizona, leaving Portland, Maine without a team.

Rule Changes

First: the AHL are trying a strange experiment with jerseys where for half the year, the whites will be the home team and for the other half, the darks will be. Christmas is the switch over date.

Second: they have gotten rid of the "dry scrape" before overtime, an excellent time saver and boon to the fan experience.

Third: teams are no longer allowed to call a timeout after they ice the puck. This is a minor change with the potential to travel up to the NHL quickly. In the NHL, however, where coaches use their timeouts as poker chips for a coach's challenge, the effect may be minimal.

And the big one: the fourth change is to the fighting rules.

Rule 46 ("Fighting")/Rule 23 ("Game Misconducts")

  • Players who enter into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of the puck for a faceoff will be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to other penalties assessed.
  • During the regular season, any player who incurs his 10th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for one (1) game. For each subsequent fighting major up to 13, the player shall also be suspended automatically for one (1) game.
  • During the regular season, any player who incurs his 14th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for two (2) games. For each subsequent fighting major, the player shall also be suspended automatically for two (2) games.
  • In any instance where the opposing player was assessed an instigator penalty, the fighting major shall not count towards the player’s total for this rule.

A lot of questions remain unanswered by what is an obvious attempt to get rid of staged enforcer bouts. How do you define immediately following, and how hard is that going to be for players to game the system and let a second stick touch the puck before they go?

Why don't the game counts for suspensions carry into the playoffs too? And what about pre-season where there is a lot of fighting, seemingly on purpose to draw fans.

Can the league retroactively add an instigator assessment to clear a suspendable offence? Should they?

This is a similar rule to junior hockey rules which have coincided with a decline in overall fighting majors, and like the icing rule, this seems destined for the NHL once the bugs have been worked out.

The Fighters

The new rule affects a very small number of players, judging just by the most recent AHL season, and may not, by itself, have a large effect on the number of fights. It might affect the GMs in their choice of players to sign. Rich Clune is still in because he plays hockey as well as fights, rarely in a staged way. But some other players who don't do much else but "enforce" might be out.

2015-2016 AHL season:

Player Away Fights Home Fights Total Fights
Michael Liambas 8 12 20
Kyle Hagel 11 7 18
Stu Bickel 7 9 16
Darren Kramer 7 9 16
Mike Cornell 8 7 15
Kurtis Gabriel 8 7 15
Cody Bass 5 9 14
Jacob Doty 9 5 14
Stefan Fournier 8 5 13
Alex Gallant 7 6 13
Zack Stortini 6 7 13
Ben Thomson 5 8 13
Oleg Yevenko 6 6 12
Travis Ewanyk 6 5 11
Brett Gallant 6 5 11
Ryan Horvat 5 6 11
David Broll 6 4 10
Austin Carroll 3 7 10
Rich Clune 5 5 10
Jamie Devane 6 4 10
Daniel Maggio 7 3 10
Adam Payerl 5 5 10
Sena Acolatse 5 4 9
Louis-Marc Aubry 5 4 9
Mark Fraser 3 6 9
Justin Kea 6 3 9
Jujhar Khaira 5 4 9
Joseph LaBate 4 5 9
Guillaume Lepine 3 6 9
Kurtis MacDermid 7 2 9
Jack Nevins 4 5 9
Nick Tarnasky 1 8 9
Chris DeSousa 3 5 8
Jake Dotchin 2 6 8
Joe Finley 4 4 8
Jeremy Gregoire 5 3 8
Tyler Lewington 4 4 8
Scott Sabourin 4 4 8
Tom Sestito 6 2 8
Duncan Siemens 4 4 8
Hunter Smith 6 2 8
Mike Angelidis 4 3 7
Darren Archibald 3 4 7
Cody Beach 2 5 7
Paul Bissonnette 4 3 7
Brett Bulmer 1 6 7
Emerson Clark 4 3 7
Jake Dowell 1 6 7
Tyrell Goulbourne 2 5 7
Mitchell Heard 3 4 7
Ben Holmstrom 5 2 7
Dan Kelly 4 3 7
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond 3 4 7
J.C. Lipon 4 3 7
Max McCormick 3 4 7
Brian McGrattan 5 2 7
Mitchell Moroz 4 3 7
Liam O'Brien 5 2 7
Steve Oleksy 1 6 7
Philippe Paradis 1 6 7

The game is changing already, it seems. In the last three years there have been 53, 45 and then 22 players with 10 or more fighting majors, so this measure might shove those totals down some, or maybe they were dropping anyway.

Fighting is very clearly team-based. Or perhaps coach-based. The Binghamton Senators have had at least three players with 10 or more fights for the last three years and have led the league in fights the last two. The Marlies are usually near the bottom of the league.

2015-2016 AHL season:

Rank Team Fight Totals
1 Binghamton Senators 71
2 Syracuse Crunch 68
3 Albany Devils 63
4 Chicago Wolves 59
5 Rockford IceHogs 59
6 Manitoba Moose 58
7 Stockton Heat 58
8 St. John's IceCaps 57
9 Charlotte Checkers 54
10 Ontario Reign 54
11 Iowa Wild 53
12 Milwaukee Admirals 53
13 Lake Erie Monsters 49
14 San Diego Gulls 48
15 Utica Comets 47
16 San Antonio Rampage 45
17 Bridgeport Sound Tigers 43
18 Portland Pirates 43
19 Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins 43
20 Rochester Americans 41
21 Bakersfield Condors 39
22 Hershey Bears 39
23 Grand Rapids Griffins 37
24 San Jose Barracuda 36
25 Springfield Falcons 36
26 Lehigh Valley Phantoms 35
27 Providence Bruins 33
28 Hartford Wolf Pack 28
29 Toronto Marlies 27
30 Texas Stars 16

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms had been near the top of the list of fighting teams for years until last year when they just stopped. They changed coaches, acquiring former Leafs assistant Scott Gordon, and they have continued to emphasize development and winning—signing T.J. Brennan and Andy Miele for their scoring, not their toughness. New Flyers GM Ron Hextall has a lot in common with the Leafs management.

Meanwhile, Michael Liambas was signed by the Nashville Predators to an NHL contract on the day before this rule was announced.

Liambas had two points last year in 44 games with the Rockford IceHogs. He also had 188 penalty minutes and led the AHL with 20 fights. The Predators knew what they were getting: prior to his one year in the Chicago organization, he played three years for their Milwaukee Admirals, never managing more than eight points but fighting 8, 25 and 16 times in those three years.

Liambas has a career total of 160 fights going back to the OHL, and his days in the OHL were a time when a teenager could fight 18 and 20 times in a season. There were four players in the OHL last year with 10 or more fights, and the highest number for one player was 13.

There is no one left like Liambas in the OHL, and eventually, there won't be in the AHL. But he'll be around next year, watching his fight count carefully, unless he wants some days off. None of these guys play a full year usually, so it's an open question how much of a deterrent that suspension rule is.

Second place on the individual fighter list last year was Kyle Hagel of the Charlotte Checkers. He's on an AHL contract, and he had 18 fights and preceded that with 22, 18 and 22 the three prior years. He had a career high of 31 back in 2010-11 for Rockford (them again). He's the assistant captain of the Checkers, the AHL affiliate of an NHL team who was fighting it out with Toronto and a few other teams for bottom of the NHL in fights last year.

The disconnect between what an organization thinks its NHL team is and should do and who they'll spend an SPC on or give a letter to in the AHL is sometimes dramatic.

I think proclaiming an end to the enforcer is premature. There is no evidence that the rule changes are driving the decline and aren't just following a cultural change already in place. But at least more and more of these guys play hockey some of the time. The really smart ones figure out how to do it all the time. Meanwhile, the faster Canadian junior hockey, the source of almost all of these players, dries up the supply, the faster they'll disappear from the game.

All fight data is from Hockeyfights.com. There is no cheap head shots dot com, so it's a lot more work to track that traditional yet dangerous hockey practice to see if occasionally severe suspensions are making it go away as well.

Next time: a look at the new Marlies roster: younger, faster and with an interesting cadre of veterans who share a past.