Fighting is up in the NHL preseason despite the fact it makes no sense

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While there’s robust debate of the role fighting has in the NHL, it seems clear that it doesn’t serve a purpose in the preseason.

Theoretically speaking, dropping the mitts can energize a team or send a message about what kind of physical play won’t be tolerated from an opponent. During exhibition play, the utility of the unquantifiable jolt to a bench is minimal — and the kind of dirty play fighting is supposed to police isn’t particularly common.

Despite that, early in the preseason, the number of fights has increased from last preseason. So far there have been 0.35 bouts per game, up from 0.30 in 2022-23 — and the second-highest number in the last five years.

Only the surprisingly pugnacious 2021-22 preseason (0.42) stands above what we’ve seen so far.

Fighting in the preseason doesn't serve a clear purpose. (Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Fighting in the preseason doesn’t serve a clear purpose. (Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There’s plenty of preseason action still to be played, and the story here could change over the next two weeks, but considering that fighting has been declining in the NHL for years, it’s surprising to see any kind of uptick — particularly in a low-stakes setting.

On a team level, these fights mean very little, but they can be more meaningful for individuals. Players are trying to send a message that they are capable of providing a physical deterrent for their team.

Again, it’s reasonable to be skeptical if teams operate in an appreciably different way because they know there’s a player on the other bench who will fight, but that’s the idea.

The problem is that if you look deeper at the combatants of the 2023-24 preseason, it’s pretty clear few of them are providing new information to the league. The 22 fighters we’ve seen thus far averaged 3.64 fights per‘s data, and only five of them didn’t drop the gloves at least twice at the NHL or AHL level last year:

  • Nick Ritchie — Eight-year NHL veteran with 11 regular-season fights to his name at the highest level. On a PTO with the St. Louis Blues, which could explain the inclination show a different element.

  • Isaac Ratcliffe — Also on a PTO with the Blues, and has never logged a fight in the NHL. Another logical candidate to get into a fight.

  • Cam MacDonald — 20-year-old trying to get noticed in the Arizona Coyotes organization, has yet to make his pro debut but has three QMJHL fights to his name.

  • Sammy Blais — 27-year-old journeyman who projects to start the season on the Blues’ third line. Put up 20 points in 31 games with St. Louis last year and doesn’t need to fight.

  • Sam Bitten — 23-year-old who signed a contract with the Blues’ AHL affiliate after spending three years playing in European pro leagues.

What that tells us is that 17 guys we already knew could fight showed us they can still fight, and players in the Blues organization have gotten the message that getting in a tussle is something their bosses might want to see.

For regular fighters, there might be some component of getting a tune up in September, but it’s tough to imagine that guys like Ross Johnston, Sam Carrick, or A.J. Greer have forgotten how to throw hands.

Up-and-comers might feel like demonstrating fighting prowess is a viable route to the NHL, but that becomes less and less true every year. The Toronto Maple Leafs signing Ryan Reaves to a three-year deal this offseason could be offered as a counterpoint to those who say enforcers are no longer valued, but that contract is a rarity.

Even though Reaves had one of the biggest fighting seasons of his career in 2022-23 (7), he dropped the gloves just three times in each of the four seasons before that. His value is perceived to come from the intangibles and experience he brings rather than merely his ability to punch faces. That’s something that would be impossible for a player just entering the NHL to replicate.

Considering the early mortality risk and C.T.E. cases associated with hockey fighting, it’s always worth interrogating whether it should be a part of NHL hockey. That’s particularly true when it’s taking place in games that don’t mean a thing.

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