The NHL is not putting up the fight that it used to. Fighting in the NHL is at an all-time low. The season is over a quarter complete and there are 15 teams in the NHL that have five or fewer fighting majors. Closer to home, the Penguins rank tied for last in the league for the least number of fights with just three. In fact, the Penguins have ranked in the middle or bottom of the pack in fighting the last two seasons with 15 and 12 total fights, respectively.
Gone are the days that every team employed a goon. It used to be that the fourth line of every NHL team featured a heavyweight fighter that was, in theory, there to protect his team's stars. At one time, this was a valuable role, but that time has come and gone. With the way the game is played in the NHL today, teams can't afford to have a roster spot occupied by a player that has no useful skills other than pugilism.
This is certainly a departure from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s when multiple fights per game was the norm. Consider that during the 2001-02 season the Florida Panthers led the NHL with 117 fights and their forward Peter Worrell led the NHL with 33 fights. Last season, the Panthers again led the NHL in fighting majors, but only engaged in 49 total fights. Their forward Micheal Haley led all fighters with 22 bouts. The 22 scraps were actually an anomaly considering that quantity was the most by an individual fighter since the 2011-12 season. Just three seasons ago Cody McLeod of the Avalanche led the league with only a dozen fights.
To further illustrate that the NHL has become less punchy, last season 21 of the NHL's 31 teams had less than 20 skirmishes. In fact, Stanley Cup finalist Vegas engaged in just eight total fights during the regular season, which tied with Winnipeg and Carolina for the lowest total in the league; proving that intimidation and fisticuffs are no longer a factor to overall success.
From the 1980-81 season through the 1989-90 season, the NHL's most pugilistic teams averaged 110 fights per season. During the 1990s that number decreased to an average of 88. Continuing the downward trend, the decade of the 2000s saw fighting numbers go down too, with the NHL's punchiest teams averaging only 77 fights per season. Thus far in the decade of the 2010s, the NHL's top tussling teams are down to averaging 52 fights per season. That is a decrease of 52% since the combative decade of the 1980's.
On an individual level, consider that noted pugilist Chris Nilan led the NHL in fighting majors during both the 1983 and 1984 season, dropping the gloves a combined 57 times. The past two seasons McLeod and Haley led the NHL in fighting majors with 19 and 22 fights, during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, respectively.
Dating back to the 1980-81 season, the most fighting majors for a team in one season came during the 1985-86 season when the Detroit Red Wings engaged in a whopping 154 bouts. Three decades later, Anaheim led the NHL in fights with a mere 42 during the 2015-16 season. That's 112 less fights!
The downward trend in fights has had no ill effect on attendance. Last season the NHL averaged 17,446 fans per game, and 22,174,263 total fans for the season. One of the NHL's least-pugilistic teams, Chicago, ranked 25th in fights, but first overall attendance last season. Meanwhile, Florida, the NHL's punchiest team, ranked 28th in overall attendance last season, playing in front of an average of just 13,851 fans. The old adage, 'I went to see a fight and a hockey game broke out' has become as antiquated as helmetless players.
While there will always be a place in the game for fighting, concussion awareness, a more skillful style of play, and stiffer penalties for initiating fights have all led to the decrease in donnybrooks. So, while the NHL isn't as punchy as it once was, nobody seems to mind and the NHL is better for it.