There’s more to a hockey team than forwards, defensemen and goalies.
I’m not sure I’ve ever begun a column with such an obvious statement, but it’s true. Team officials spend hours poring over the perfect fit for their team, that perfect player to drop in to the lineup that will make the difference in a game. Some of the players in the NHL are a clear shoo-in to lead his to a win, guys like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos (as long as his tibia is in one piece); the All-Stars of the league.
But there’s more to a hockey team than signing a ton of names. Role players are needed to grind out games and limit those same top talents on the ice. Second-, third- and even fourth-liners have a job to do. When it comes to a team like the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that relies on a full team effort to win games, those role players are more important than those on a talent-laden team like Pittsburgh.
It goes without saying that those role players have a specific job to do — forechecking, puck possession, agitation. Each one has a goal in mind and a focus. But I’m talking about a specific role player, one that is often a fan-favorite and a dying breed: the enforcer.
The enforcer’s job varies slightly from team-to-team, but the main idea remains the same: He’s the heavy body that embodies the physical threat to most players. He’s the intimidation factor, the promise that dirty play will be repaid with a big hit. Here in Phoenix, we call him Biz Nasty.
Biz, better known as Paul Bissonnette, certainly fits the role of fan-favorite. His — for lack of a better word — swagger on and off the ice and refusal to back down makes him an easy celebrity for the crowd. However, he’s more than that for the Coyotes. Sure, he can lay down the law, but, believe it or not, his presence on the ice is leading to wins.
“He brings energy,” captain Shane Doan said of Bissonnette following the team’s 6-0 win over the Calgary Flames Tuesday night. “He’s a guy that wants to do everything right. His effort is unquestionable.”
So far this season, the Coyotes are 14-6-4 this season when Biz takes the ice. They’re not winning because of his offensive contributions, as the 28-year-old has only contributed one goal and five helpers (not exactly record-breaking numbers). They’re winning because of his presence.
Bissonnette has that intimidation factor. He has no fear. Whether it’s laying a hit to get his team going, protecting a teammate or dropping the gloves to take on the other team’s big guy, Biz is the Coyotes’ man. In fact, when he’s on the ice, the Coyotes lay an average of 14.2 hits on their opponents while only taking 9.7. The other team is wary of him and it changes the way they play.
But the Welland, Ontario native is stepping outside of his enforcer role this season. His effort, in each game he’s played, is noticeable. He’s doing more than hitting, more than getting physical. He’s creating chances and contributing.
“He’s actually a pretty good player,” said Doan. “He’s a good player and doesn’t get the credit he deserves.”
How right is the captain? I took a look.
Biz’s aforementioned offensive stats, again, aren’t impressive. But his six points are enough to tie his NHL season-high.
He’s also drawn seven penalties this season while only taking five. That still may seem high, but consider that sniper Radim Vrbata has the same number of penalty minutes as Bissonnette (16), and that number sticks. Biz has worked to keep himself on the ice while getting under the skin of others.
And while he’s staying on the ice, he’s contributing. He’s a plus-4 this season, again which doesn’t seem like a big number. But it’s fifth overall on the Coyotes. And on a (sort of) defensive-minded team, that’s pretty impressive.
The point I’m getting at is this: Bissonnette is evolving. He’s no longer just the enforcer we all know and love, he’s becoming a well-rounded fourth-liner who can still lay a big hit. He’s only gotten 24 games this year from head coach Dave Tippett. He deserves more.
To me, Biz has done enough to earn a regular spot on the Coyotes. He’s becoming more and more effective as the season goes on. He worries other teams, and worry causes mistakes. For an opportunistic team like Phoenix, worry means goals. Goals mean wins. Wins mean playoffs.
Before you jump to conclusions, no, I’m not saying that playing Bissonnette is the key to the playoffs for the Coyotes. But I am saying that not giving him a chance to lend his hand (fist?) to the cause would be foolish on Tippett’s part.