When the Carolina Hurricanes take to the ice Monday night, they’ll see a familiar face across the way. Kevin Westgarth and the Calgary Flames make their only appearance in Raleigh this season, but don’t expect fireworks of any kind from the popular former Hurricane.
Whether by edict or coincidence, the Hurricanes haven’t been a team to drop the gloves very often this year. They have just five fighting majors on the year — fewest in the NHL — and Westgarth recorded none of them. In fact, in an early December game against the Vancouver Canucks, when the play got chippy, it was Jay Harrison who fought while Westgarth simply watched from a few feet away, on the ice.
In Calgary, Westgarth has wasted little time in getting back to his roots, squaring off against Ryan Malone in just his second game with the team. He’s served much more of a role there, recording his three highest minutes-played games of the season. In Carolina, he was stapled to the bench, made a healthy scratch, and then traded.
The role of a dedicated “enforcer” has been endangered for quite awhile for the ‘Canes, and now may be extinct. But that’s not to say the team will shy away from fighting if emotions run high. Justin Faulk, of all people, was the latest to engage an opponent late in last week’s 6-1 blowout of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It just happened,” Faulk said, indicating the fight was not building throughout the game, nor was it simply staged.
Of course, the main concern was over the status of his hand, which he was noticeably favoring as he made his way to the penalty box.
“It’s fine,” repeated Faulk more than once. “It’s a fight. Obviously you’d rather punch a face maybe than a helmet. Some people say they’d rather punch a helmet. Actually, I’ve heard that. I think [Glen] Wesley might have told me that one before. It’s a little softer than a head.”
Over the years, having an enforcer around has not prevented opponents from taking liberties with some of the Hurricanes’ younger skaters, and now that they don’t, why should anything change? Kirk Muller’s team still has players willing to stand up for themselves or each other, eliminating the need for someone whose sole purpose is to fight. No one is going to confuse Westgarth for a scorer, and if he’s not fighting, his 4:52 of ice-time per game can be given to a more skilled skater, and expanded.
Muller didn’t mind Faulk’s fight, but preferred a different timing.
“Well, we’ll have to tell him if you have to drop em, don’t do it at the end of the shift. Do it when you’re fresh,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s done and he’s okay. He has to play with a little edge, so it’s not bad either.”
If anyone is capable of standing up for themselves or a teammate, an enforcer serves no purpose except as a liability. Skill is traded for size and toughness, and often that results in a unforced handicap. Since arriving in Carolina, Westgarth has been one of the worst forwards at 5-on-5, hasn’t killed penalties and hasn’t contributed offensively, all while getting protected minutes against easier competition.
Long criticized as a “soft” team, the Canes can still stand to get tougher as a whole. But not by putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage in rolling only 11 skaters for most of the game. The role of an enforcer in Carolina is dead.