Did the Leafs’ emphasis on fighting help them make the playoffs?

Updated: April 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm by Cam Charron

I’m hearing it everywhere this season, well, mostly on Coach’s Corner and on the comment section of my website. “The Leafs are winning because they’re tougher and fighting more.”

In fact, the New York Rangers lost their fighter Brandon Prust in the offseason. They’ve gone from 1st in the league in fighting majors to 24th (through Saturday, according to HockeyFights.net) and have gone from Presidents’ Trophy contenders to bubble team.

Prust went from New York to Montreal in the offseason. Montreal went from 22nd in fighting majors last season to seventh, and have since gone from a lottery team to a team competing for the title in the tough Northeast Division with the likes of the Boston Bruins! The other team in that division, Toronto, lead the league in fights and are going to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years!

Clearly, fighting means something right?

Well, no, not really.

I went back and looked at all the seasons since 2001 when the league expanded to 30 teams. What I did was look at see whether drastic changes in the number of fights a team had really changed much in the way of win totals.

The standard deviation for change in fighting majors in a season is between 17 and 18. I checked the average win total for teams that had eclipsed that particular standard deviation, plus or minus, from year-to-year and checked the average win total:

Standard Deviations # of teams Average Wins Increase
2 3 0.3
1 33 0.6
-1 34 2.5
-2 11 6.7

Pretty standard stuff.

The main takeaway is that teams that increased by more than 35 fights (or two standard deviations) got about a third extra win. Those that decreased their fight total by more than 35, however, increased their win total by 6.7.

Of course, not *every* team wins more games year-to-year. Teams that didn’t increase or decrease their fight total by a standard deviation tend to lose a little more (about 1.3 games) so I think the general idea is that a general shift in philosophy is positive, but it’s more positive if you take a progressive approach.

The other thing isn’t necessarily that fighting less equals wins. Fights generally come from replacement-level players. The 2006 Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, respectively, came out of the last lockout replacing thugs like Eric Boulton and Chris Simon with skilled players Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek, Petr Prucha and Martin Straka.

Still, it’s important to note that an emphasis on toughness, while it worked for the Maple Leafs this season, is not a universal truth, no matter what Don Cherry says. The Leafs relied on good goaltending, good shooting luck and a Hart Trophy nomination-calibre season from Phillip J. Kessel. Given that teams in the past that have historically increased their fight totals by a wide margin haven’t done better than those that took a more progressive turn, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that the fortunes of the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Rangers indicates that more toughness is good.