Draft lessons of NHL enforcers

Trevor Gillies doesn't have a glamorous job, but he is very valuable to his team. AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams

Trevor Gillies gets paid to cause trouble -- no surprise, given his profile.

That's not an insult, it's just that players like Gillies -- guys who have no redeeming skill on the ice, other than to stir things up and sit in the penalty box -- come in a similar mold. They have similar roots, similar builds and they reach the NHL in similar fashions. In fact, the way Gillies reached the league is cartoonishly quintessential of enforcers.

The 6-foot-3 Canadian played in the OHL, went undrafted and then bounced around the AHL and ECHL until last season, when the New York Islanders brought him in as an enforcer. He was 31 years old. And, now, for every point he has scored in the NHL, he has sat in the penalty box for more than 100 minutes.

That bio of Gillies illustrates almost every secret to finding an "enforcer," which we'll define as a player whose sole contribution on the stat sheet is PIM. But because these are guys who are generally unskilled -- except with their gloves off -- the results of this study aren't surprising. They confirm what we already knew: Enforcers are often big journeymen who are willing to be overly aggressive on the ice, because they have nothing else to offer an NHL team.

This is unique to hockey -- in most sports, "craziness" is not considered an asset. And, in most sports, unskilled players fizzle out. But in hockey, a late-round pick, or an undrafted free agent, can mingle in the minors for several years until an NHL club brings them on as a hired gun. And teams are okay with them sacrificing their bodies and risking injury because, generally, teams haven't invested much in the enforcer. Because of that, future enforcers are often have similar draft profiles.


Let's get the easy part out of the way: Enforcers are tall and they are heavy. We looked at every draftee who has played 82 NHL games, and it turns out that around 6-3, they start averaging about 7 PIM for every point they score. From there, it only gets worse.

As far as weight, heavier guys tend to average more PIM per point than smaller ones. But at around 215 pounds, that average plateaus at about 6 PIM per point.

So outliers seem to start at around 6-3, 215; these are guys who are more likely to be on the ice to cause trouble (Gillies is 6-3, 215).


It would seem that enforcers are more often found in latest rounds, since teams don't like to invest in them. But in the last 20 years, players in the fifth round have averaged 11.7 PIM per point -- almost double that of the other rounds. Now, that's clearly an outlier, thanks to players like Enrico Ciccone (1,469 PIM, 28 points) and Gino Odjick (2,567 PIM, 127 points) -- who, by the way, was also 6-3, 215.

When drafting, NHL clubs historically have a minimum size requirement. And, from there, they draft players in order of skill, with some consideration to size and other factors. Enforcers obviously pass the size test. But it seems that they are often players who weren't as skilled as scouts thought, or players who weren't even considered for the draft because of skill, like Gillies. So it seems that, while late-rounders are more likely to be enforcers, it isn't a great predictor -- especially since teams aren't drafting players specifically to be an enforcer.


I mentioned that Gillies played in the OHL for a specific reason: Junior hockey leagues in Canada produce guys who most often end up in the penalty box. Perhaps it's because the physicality of the OHL, WHL and QMJHL breeds those types of players. But it may also have to do with the mindset of Canadian hockey players, who grow up in a country far more passionate about the sport.

The European countries tend to produce skilled players who don't end up in the penalty box very often. That may partially be because unskilled Europeans stay in their home countries. So, of NHL draftees, Canadians -- and Americans, to a lesser extent -- seem more willing to get into a scuffle.


Gillies was 30 years old when he finally earned a regular spot on an NHL team. From the year he was draft-eligible, that's 12 years!

But, for players who take a long time to get to the NHL, it seems that being a tough guy is the ideal way to stick in the league. Looking back at draft picks since 1990, we looked at when they debuted in the NHL relative to their draft year. It turns out that players who take a long time to reach the league are generally less productive, but end up in the penalty box more often.

While Gillies is the ultimate tough guy with no skill, the NHL culture allows for players like David Koci (437 PIM, 4 points), Cam Janssen (644 PIM, 8 points) and Derek Boogaard (589 PIM, 16 points) to be assets in the league. You can't really blame these guys for doing what they do, since it's the only way they can earn -- and keep -- their jobs. And they had to fight their way to the league -- both literally and figuratively.

But NHL teams aren't investing in these tough guys. And when you don't invest in something, you don't take care of it. So, to an extent, they are treated as disposable players. It shows in the number of years they stick around the minors, and the average playing career of an enforcer. Of draftees who averaged more than 10 PIM per point, the average career length was about 250 games; the NHL average is about 410 games -- almost two seasons more.