A hockey journalist made the astute point recently (I believe it was in the Globe and Mail's hockey blog) that the amount of fighting in an NHL game is commensurate with exactly how important the game is. In other words, pre-season games are littered with clutching and flailing while the playoffs are almost completely free of fisticuffs.
That is demonstrably true as shown by the 2006-07 post-season but there are some compelling indications that this year may in fact see a rise in skate-to-skate punch-ups during the regular season.
First, the Anaheim Ducks were the most penalized team last year and also had the most fighting majors. There is a half-baked theory that states the rest of the league will look to emulate the most recent Stanley Cup champions in terms of what style of play led them to the post-season title. As seen by recent Cup winners, this does not alway play out. An easily identifiable single aspect that resulted in Cup glory for a particular team may not always be present. Also, when there is one or two team strengths that can be pointed to, they may not alway be so simple to implement in the short term.
Not only are intimidation and fighting far easier to integrate into a team that may have been lacking such elements previously, but many decision makers on NHL clubs feel those aspects are highly important to winning. Fighting has been marginalized somewhat in recent years due to rule changes, with much talk about the possibility of token fighters becoming obsolete. This shift has created resentment for those who came up through a system where fighting was more prevalent and accepted. The success of the Anaheim Ducks will once again validate the belief for many that fighting plays an important role, albeit a limited one, in icing a winning team.
The potential for penalties and suspensions may now no longer outweigh the benefits of making fighting a green-light option for certain players on a team. Another factor may also have tipped the scales for some teams in terms of deciding to make intimidation and fighting part of their overall strategy. Two years after the rule changes in the NHL that have somewhat altered the flow of the game, injuries in general, and especially to the head, seem to be on the increase. The grey area of head shots, which the NHL hasn't exactly figured out how to eliminate or even adequately defined in terms of legality, has resulted in important players missing plenty of games.
This is even more reason for NHL clubs to cut loose a few thugs and let it be known that if there aren't sufficient preventative measures in place to protect their players then they will take matters into their own hands. When a swift and brutal response is guaranteed, it is certain that there is at least some moderating effect on other teams.
The Boston Bruins, among others, have shown during the pre-season that they plan on making intimidation a more important part of their game plan this year. Bruins Insider has been going into some detail regarding the new/old face of the Bruins as they seem determined to return to the tradition that brought them success so many years ago. Here's a small excerpt:
"The Bruins then showed off the most improved aspect of their game this preseason, displaying both their physical play and willingness to stick up for each other. After Brendan Witt went knee-on-knee on Krejci, Andrew Alberts immediately dropped the gloves with Witt. It was a solid showing for Alberts, who has struggled in past bouts. He landed several punches and scored the takedown, though he was given an instigator and had to sit for 17 minutes..."
Some of the better first-person descriptive accounts of hockey fights to be found at Bruins Insider.
Indications from many pre-season games is that the increased fighting is league wide. As mentioned, fighting is usually more evident during exhibition games as players desperate to make the team show what they are made of and the consequences from penalties hold no real weight. However, if only the same degree of drop-off occurs heading into the regular season, there could be more bouts for those who enjoy a scrap or two as part of their hockey viewing experience.