Are marginal Penguins players fighting more to prove their value to the team?
To see why the Penguins currently lead the NHL in fighting majors as a team, simply imagine the following two sentences being spoken in a Pittsburgh-uncle voice, and ask yourself which sounds better:
A) "This Deryk Engelland, he plays alright defense."
B) "This Deryk Engelland, he plays alright defense, an' he ain't afraid ta drop the gloves."
If you said B, congratulations! You can probably hold conversations with those dudes sitting next to you at Consol.
The Penguins currently lead the NHL with 28 fighting majors through 29 games - tied with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers - after compiling only 48 fighting majors in the entire 2009-10 season. How can we explain this increase in fighting majors for an (at least nominally) skill-based team that experienced only moderate roster turnover this past offseason?
Fighting in the NHL serves many functions, chief among them its obvious fan appeal, but if one asks a coach or player to explain the main reasons why NHLers choose to drop the gloves, their answers will probably be one of the following:
1) To retaliate, protect, or stick up for oneself or a teammate.
2) To change the momentum of a game by firing up the crowd and/or bench.
I propose, however, that the Penguins' surge in fighting majors is the primary result of a third reason: The Penguins have an excess of third- and fourth-line players seeking to distinguish themselves, and a player who fights can make himself useful, or at least noticeable, to teammates and fans even if he isn't producing.
According to the amusingly thorough Hockeyfights.com, here's the breakdown of the Pens' fighting majors:
Deryk Engelland - 8
Michael Rupp - 5
Craig Adams - 2
Arron Asham - 2
Mike Comrie - 2
Eric Godard - 2
Tyler Kennedy - 2
Matt Cooke - 1
Sidney Crosby - 1
Chris Kunitz - 1
Kris Letang - 1
Maxime Talbot - 1
Nearly half the Penguins' fighting penalties this season have come from Deryk Engelland and Mike Rupp. Engelland is a career fringe minor-leaguer who battles Ben Lovejoy for the Pens' sixth defensive spot, and Rupp is a fourth-line forward who has only managed two goals this season after netting a career-high 13 last year. While both players have played acceptably for the most part, they're both clearly aware of their precarious positions on the Pens' deep depth chart. By routinely dropping the gloves, the two have made themselves far more noticeable, and have thus distinguished themselves by providing a specific value that exists even if their on-ice play slips.
Furthermore, the next five players on the list - Adams, Asham, Comrie, Godard, and Kennedy - are all forwards coming in near the bottom of the Pens' depth chart who each stand to directly benefit by proving that they can fight. Godard and Asham are obviously fighters by trade, and two fights apiece actually seems low.
Comrie, on the other hand, is a skill forward who has failed to notch a single goal this season, and his two fights in 16 games with Pittsburgh (after averaging barely over one per season in his career) might be a deliberate attempt to show some grit in case he can land a third- or fourth-line role. Craig Adams is a playoff vet who offers value on the penalty kill, but with Jordan Staal's impending return and the solid play of Mark Letestu and Chris Conner, Adams will eventually find himself on the bubble, and anything he does to demonstrate a more well-rounded fourth-line game will help him retain his spot.
While Tyler Kennedy seems to be the exception to this list, as he's unlikely to be healthy-scratched on a given night, consider that his first fight came against Dallas on Nov. 3 after a stretch of six straight games in which he failed to record a point. This likely isn't a coincidence; a player can't just decide to start producing points, obviously, but a player usually can just decide to get into a fight.
The 2010-11 Penguins have a much deeper roster than in 2009-10, and as a result, a number of players in the least-secure positions on the team have made a deliberate effort to distinguish themselves this season by dropping the gloves with league-leading frequency. It's an easy way to distinguish oneself and provide some degree of potential intangible value, and when a team has as many third- and fourth-liners trying to distinguish themselves as the current Penguins do, it's not surprising that they lead the league in fights.
And if you doubt this argument, consider that Sidney Crosby's lone fight came Nov. 3 against the Stars, and he hasn't been healthy-scratched a single game since then. Point proven.