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More Than Just An Enforcer

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

The concept of "do no harm’’ is one that medical students learn early, and attempt to follow throughout their careers as doctors. The same could be said for NHL enforcers. Do no harm to one’s own team, that is.
The stereotype of an enforcer as a non-thinking goon is, for the most part, a stereotype that is far off base in today’s game. Perhaps no Kings player does more on-ice thinking than enforcer Kevin Westgarth, and that has nothing to do with the fact that Westgarth attended Princeton University and studied psychology.
Westgarth freely admits that he primarily makes his money with his fists, but it’s not that simple. In the course of a game, the decisions that he makes, in limited ice time, can have a large impact on his team.
When is the proper time to fight? Does the team need a boost, or will it lose momentum if he drops the gloves? Can he win the fight? Should he go for a big hit, or will the risk of a penalty do more damage to the team? Should he go to the net for a scoring chance, or will that leave him exposed on the defensive end?
In the post-lockout era, in which enforcers are required to be all-around hockey players, and not simply punchers, these are all factors that Westgarth has to weigh every time he steps onto the ice.
"For sure. You can’t get too wrapped up in it, one way or the other,’’ Westgarth said. ``If you think you’re just a scorer, then you’re not doing your job. If you’re just thinking about fighting, then you’re probably not too aware of what’s going on in the game. So it’s absolutely a balance. It’s something that I’m working on, that I’m always going to be working on and trying to get better at.’’
In general, enforcers don’t get much ice time. Westgarth averages 5 minutes, 41 seconds, per game this season, by far the least of any Kings player, but that doesn’t mean his role is small.
In today’s NHL, in which scoring is down and many coaches tend to roll four lines consistently, an enforcer can’t afford to be a passenger.
He has to fight, play smart -- Westgarth’s predecessor, Raitis Ivanans, had a glaring tendency to take bad penalties -- and perhaps, once in a blue moon, hit the back of the net.
That’s why there were smiles all around last week in Dallas, when Westgarth scored his first NHL goal in his 73rd career game, on a sharp wrist shot from the left faceoff circle.
"I saw the referee smiling for him,’’ Kings coach Terry Murray joked.
To be certain, teams don’t look to enforcers for many goals. In fact, any team that looks to its fourth line for scoring probably has broader, bigger problems. But every player takes pride in scoring, and even though the Kings lost that game in Dallas, in overtime, Westgarth still took pride in the goal.
On Sunday, Westgarth proudly pointed out that he had been mentioned by commentator, and fighting enthusiast, Don Cherry on the ``Coach’s Corner’’ segment on ``Hockey Night in Canada,’’ a rare moment in the spotlight for Westgarth.
"That was great,’’ Westgarth said. ``That was unbelievable, something I will never forget. He gave me a bit of a shout-out. It’s nice to chip in, and I look forward to the next one and not having to wait 73 games.’’
There’s reason to suggest that might be more than just hope.
Westgarth, 27, will never be confused for a dynamic scorer. At 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, he knows his role and knows that physical play, not playmaking, is what earns him a spot on the NHL roster. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that, from time to time, Westgarth isn’t capable of more.
Westgarth isn’t the smoothest of skaters, but he can get around the ice, and although he doesn’t necessarily have a scorer’s instincts, his wrist shot can be dangerous, as the Stars learned.
That’s because Westgarth didn’t come by the enforcer role naturally.
He played four seasons at Princeton at the NCAA level, where fighting is not allowed, and Westgarth even scored 10 goals in 29 games as a junior for the Tigers in 2005-06. Even at the AHL level, Westgarth scored 11 goals in 2009-10.
"That was one of the benefits of going to college,’’ Westgarth said. "I had four years of no fighting, and being able to work on my game. I always knew that if I was going to play pro, at any level, fighting would probably have something to do with it. But in my four years at Princeton, I got to play on the power play and work on my skills and my skating, which was invaluable. I was able to continue that in Manchester.
"That’s always been part of the deal, essentially, here. With Dean (Lombardi) and management and the coaches, it’s always been, `We want you to be a hockey player, so make sure you’re working hard every day and getting better.’ So that’s always been a piece of the puzzle.’’
The Kings signed Westgarth as an undrafted free agent in 2007. Murray joined the Kings as coach a year later, but he already had some familiarity with Westgarth. Along with his brother (and Princeton teammate) Brett, Westgarth attended a Philadelphia Flyers tryout camp when Murray was an assistant coach there.
"He has come a long way,’’ Murray said. "I go back, with Westy, to the tryout camp in Philadelphia, when he and his brother came out of Princeton. You had a pretty raw player there. Here he is now, down the road, and he has put in a lot of work and paid a lot of dues.
"His game has really come along, and quite frankly, going back to the playoffs last year against San Jose, he was in the lineup because of being able to play the game. It wasn’t because of that loaded-gun kind of guy, or because you need the heavyweight in the lineup. He was playing well. So we’re seeing some results. The goal the other night was a beautiful goal. It was a catch-and-release play, and it’s the right attitude of getting pucks back to the net right away. I think he’s moving his game forward, as a player who is contributing in other ways now.’’
That’s the way it has to be. The era of the ``battleships,’’ as Lombardi calls them -- players who cruise the ice simply looking for fights or to avenge teammates -- is over, for the most part. For an enforcer to stick in the NHL, he must at least be capable in other areas of the game.
That doesn’t mean that Westgarth will ever develop into a double-digit scorer in the NHL, but it means that he’s capable of contributing more than by simply throwing punches.
"There’s no goons,’’ Westgarth said of today’s NHL. "Even guys who are tagged as just fighters can still play hockey. It’s a role that I revel in, and I’m very proud to perform. I obviously want to become a better hockey player. Everybody wants to score goals and play as much as they possibly can, but I can never forget that protecting my teammates, and making sure that people know I’m on the ice, is a huge part of my role and my job.’’

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