The National Hockey League is well-known for its fights. For years, every team had a few players that were not only willing to fight to stand up for teammates, but who knew the only reason they were on the team was to play the tough-guy role.
Times have changed. Sure, there are still plenty of fights, but the days of roster spots being occupied by designated goons are gone for the most part. That being said, some players have become experts at stirring things up, not necessarily with their fists, but with other tactics designed to get under the other team’s skin and stay there.
These are the true agitators. And a handful of players have elevated this role to an art form over the past 10 years. Here is a look at the top five purveyors of this rather unique craft.
1. Brad Marchand
Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins licked Tampa Bay Lightning player Ryan Callahan during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That alone is enough to get Marchand on this list.
However, Marchand has earned a reputation around the league for being a pest. He is a master of getting under opposing players’ skin and frustrating them enough with his words and his skill to draw penalties and be a major distraction on the ice.
Many fans and media members believe Marchand has matured into more of a team leader, leaving his days of licking opponents behind him. But the veteran winger still shows the occasional flashes of the oh-so-annoying behavior that catapulted him to the top of the list.
2. Matt Cooke
Matt Cooke’s NHL career spanned three decades, from 1998 through 2015. However, likely his most egregious hit, the one that ended the career of the Bruins’ Marc Savard, came in 2010.
Cooke was relentless. He was there to draw the ire of opposing players and at times it did not seem like he cared how he did it or who got hurt. In the 2014 playoffs, Cooke, who was playing with the Minnesota Wild, garnered his sixth career suspension. In addition, he had a stat sheet littered with game misconduct penalties. In all, he accrued 1,135 penalty minutes in 1,046 career games.
3. Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson has been making his rather controversial mark on Washington Capitals’ opponents since 2013, and he shows no signs of letting up.
Wilson was suspended without pay for 20 games in October 2018. The league determined a message needed to be sent following an illegal hit to the head on Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues. It was Wilson’s fourth suspension in just 105 games.
It doesn’t seem like Wilson learned the lesson the NHL was trying to teach, however. In the past week alone, Wilson has made headlines for fighting David Pastrnak of the Bruins and all takers in a Dec. 23 pre-Christmas-break game after sending the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Jakob Lilja headfirst into the boards.
4. Nazem Kadri
When he was still a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nazem Kadri was suspended in the first round of the playoffs against the Bruins in both 2017 and 2018. Kadri is not afraid to make his presence known with punishing hits.
Kadri’s suspension following the second game of the first round of the 2019 playoffs, which forced him to sit out the remainder of the series. It marked his fifth suspension in an NHL career that began in 2009. Still just 29, Kadri likely has several years of antagonizing ahead of him. However, he has surprisingly racked up only 445 penalty minutes in 597 games played.
Kadri was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in July. Avs head coach Jared Bednar spoke seriously with Kadri about his past transgressions. (from ‘Avs’ Nazem Kadri discusses suspension history against Bruins: “Winning is more important than any kind of revenge”,’ Denver Post, 10/10/2019) It is now the Colorado head man’s job to encourage Kadri’s passion while making sure he doesn’t go over the line.
5. Milan Lucic
Quintessential power forward Milan Lucic’s production may have waned in the second half of the decade, but his overprotective, in-your-face style of play has not changed one bit. The enforcer attitude that endeared Lucic to Bruins fans in the early days of his career never let up when he played for the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, and is still going strong in his current stint with the Calgary Flames.
In early November, Lucic was suspended for two games after punching Kole Sherwood of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Lucic seems to relish in the intimidation factor his size provides. In 929 games played to date, he has amassed 1,106 penalty minutes.
Even with rules being changed all the time in an effort to increase player safety, hockey is a rough sport. Fans want to see heavy hits and energizing fights. The role of the agitator is ever-adapting, but it’s not going away anytime soon.