Calgary Flames: Time to Face the Facts on Fighting

VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 3: Erik Gudbranson #44 of the Vancouver Canucks knocks down Travis Hamonic #24 of the Calgary Flames during a fight in NHL action on October, 3, 2018 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 3: Erik Gudbranson #44 of the Vancouver Canucks knocks down Travis Hamonic #24 of the Calgary Flames during a fight in NHL action on October, 3, 2018 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images) /

There’s no shortage of sad commentary one could write about the Calgary Flames‘ season opener in Vancouver. Rather than analyze the dismal powerplay (perhaps another time), let’s take a closer look at the Travis Hamonic fight.

If you were paying attention this summer, you may have noticed a quiet debate going on in the hockey world: What is the role of an enforcer in today’s game? With players trending smaller, the game pace getting faster, and fights becoming more seldom, do teams even need one?

It’s a more contested topic than I had realized, and it came into the spotlight when the Calgary Flames were rumoured to be looking into Ryan Reaves. Remember that?

On the one side, some analysts and fans argued strongly that this team needed an enforcer like Reaves in the lineup, and that part of the reason they fell flat in 2017-18 was because of a lack of “toughness.” After all, fighting ignites a certain passion into the game when other things aren’t going right. It counts as a small “win” even when your team is down, it gets the bench and the fans going, and keeps the opponents from bullying your more vulnerable teammates.

On the other side of the debate, people just couldn’t justify giving precious roster spots to low-skill “tough guys” like Reaves. Talent and speed are more important than hard hits and dropped gloves. Besides, as concussion research gets more sophisticated, we’re realizing these hits and fights are ill-advised anyways.

Much to the dismay of “old school hard hittin” hockey lovers, the latter viewpoint appears to be the consensus.

But fighting is still a part of the game. Unless the league bans fighting outright, teams will need to strike the delicate balance between filling roster spots with skilled and speedy players, while still not getting pushed around.

But How Does This Affect the Flames?

The Calgary Flames are one of the smaller teams in the league, embracing the trend towards elusive and speedy players. Austin Czarnik, Andrew Mangiapane, Matthew Phillips, and of course Johnny Gaudreau, to name a few. In general that’s a good thing, but there are isolated incidents where a bigger player who can drop the gloves may have come in handy.

Last season, Mike Smith lamented that Tanner Glass was the only one willing to stand up to Milan Lucic. Ryan Lomberg was fighting way above his weight class just to try and make a name for himself. The Minnesota Wild went unchecked as they repeatedly chopped at Johnny Gaudreau’s hands. And Hamonic has gotten into some fights he probably shouldn’t have.

Related Story. Calgary Flames place Travis Hamonic on IR, recall Rasmus Andersson. light

Which brings me to the season opener. When Erik Gudbranson nailed Flames rookie Dillon Dube with a risky check, Hamonic tried to teach him a lesson right after the next faceoff. It did not go well. It’s rare to see a player get legitimately injured and miss playing time due to a fight, but that’s exactly what happened here.

On principle alone, fighting Gubrandson was absolutely the right call. But was Travis Hamonic the right person to do it? For whatever reason, Hamonic got to him first. It ended badly, and could have ended worse than it did. Is Hammer the closest thing we have to an enforcer?

Here are the Flames’ most frequent fighters from 2017-18:

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Keep in mind that Glass and Lomberg barely played. Hathaway is no longer a regular in this lineup. And Brouwer and Ferland are out.

Where are the fights going to come from now?

Matthew Tkachuk is more of an agitator. Mark Giordano isn’t small and he’s certainly not shy, but he’s not really a fighter. James Neal can hold his own in a fight. Newcomers like Juuso Valimaki and Noah Hanifin aren’t small and might step up in a pinch. Even Mike Smith has got a little fight in him.

But Hamonic looks like the go-to person when it comes to standing up for his teammates. It’s partly why he was so well liked by fans, media and teammates despite only putting up 11 points all of last season. He seemed to bring passion, tenacity and effort when others didn’t.

I don’t think Hammer is particularly fond of fighting. He’s not necessarily the “toughest” guy on the team, maybe he just fights more because he cares more. The message behind the fight was not lost on Dillon Dube.

A Middle Ground

I don’t buy into either extreme of the enforcer debate.

The idea that an NHL team needs 1-2 players whose main purpose, and perhaps sole purpose, is to drop the gloves and “teach the opponents a lesson” with hard hits is ludicrous. But the notion that you could somehow build a team entirely out of speedy small-frame guys like Czarnik and Gaudreau, and expect not to get pushed around, is equally out of the question.

Skill and toughness are not mutually exclusive. Teams must invest in both if they want to be competitive.

We don’t need a goon on this roster. We need the people who are not yet accustomed to standing up for their teammates to start getting accustomed.

The Calgary Flames are fortunate to have a handful of players who balance speed and skill with size and toughness. And, unpopular as this opinion may be, it wouldn’t hurt to see some of our supposed “soft” players stick up for themselves and their teammates a little more than they do. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing a fight involving Mark Jankowski or Mr. Fitness Michael Frolik this season.

With four of our top five fighters from last year now more or less out of the picture, the Calgary Flames need some players not named Hamonic to step up. Hammer has taken some severe beatings for this team. It’s not fair to rely on him so heavily like we did last season.

Michael Stone, Mark Giordano, James Neal, Sam Bennett, and others… we fans are hoping you will answer the bell here.

Next. Calgary Flames: What went wrong with their powerplay?. dark

This Thanksgiving weekend, I would be very thankful if the Flames could figure out their powerplay.