There’s no secret guidebook or hidden formula to perfecting the art of physical contact in the NHL.
You either have the mindset or you don’t. For some players, like Ottawa’s two-way locomotive, Mike Fisher, playing the body actually helped improve his overall game as he’s now regarded as one of the finer defensive forwards in the League.
“I have struggled with some injuries over the years, but it was just a matter of getting accustomed to and feeling comfortable during the early stages of my career,” Fisher told NHL.com. “I played on the third and fourth line and was more of a role player than anything else. It was my fourth season (2002-03) when I really felt good about my game and was relied upon more to shut down the other team’s top line. I wanted to be that hard player to play against and remain physical. When I was confident in my all-around game, that’s when my offensive numbers improved.”
Fisher, now a bona-fide second-line center behind Jason Spezza, collected 23 goals, 47 points and a team-leading 234 hits while earning a career-high 19:45 of ice time per game last season.
The 6-foot-1, 213-pound pivot ranked fourth among elite hitters in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08. Here’s a look at the top 10 body crunchers within the conference last season:
1-Mike Komisarek, Montreal -- The 6-foot-4, 242-pound defenseman, who averaged 21:09 of ice time, was second in the League with 266 hits in 75 games last year. He averaged 3.6 pops per game, but fell considerably short of Los Angeles right wing Dustin Brown, who finished with 311 hits (4.0 per game) in 78 games. A former first-round draft choice (No. 7 overall) in 2001, the native of East Islip, N.Y., also led his team with 227 blocked shots and was sixth with 40 takeaways. He chipped in with 13 assists and 17 points and was a plus-9 in 75 regular-season games. In 12 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Komisarek, usually paired with Andrei Markov, had 39 hits and 41 blocked shots.
2-Trent Hunter, Islanders -- The rugged 6-3, 210-pound right wing played it clean and hard, ranking fourth in the League with 256 hits while taking only 20 penalties (19 minors) in 82 games. He averaged just under three minutes per game on the Islanders’ penalty-killing unit, which finished at an 81.9 percent efficiency. Hunter, who was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the League’s top rookie in 2003-04, was also second on the team with 58 takeaways and eighth with 50 blocked shots. Hunter was also first on the team with 29 assists and third with 41 points.
3-Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh -- Orpik (6-2, 219) was sixth in the League with 239 hits through 78 games, but was a beast during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 20 playoff games, the rugged defenseman finished with a League-leading 102 hits (5.1 per game), including 40 in his team’s six-game elimination by the Red Wings in the Cup Final. He also led his team with 61 blocked shots in the postseason. Orpik, who blocked 125 shots during the regular season, bolstered a Pittsburgh defense that yielded 2.58 goals per game. He signed a six-year contract with the Penguins over the summer.
4-Mike Fisher, Ottawa -- The former Selke nominee packs plenty of pop as the do-anything center for the Senators. Fisher ranked seventh in the League in hits (234) while finishing the regular season with 73 blocked shots and 47 steals. He was third on the team with 82 penalty minutes and was sixth with 47 points and 23 goals. Fisher is a tough penalty-killer, ranking third on the team with five shorthanded points (two goals) in 79 games. He was also second on the team in face-off winning percentage (50.2).
"Sometimes when I go on a little scoring streak, I do actually feel as though I haven’t been physical enough, but you have to conserve your energy because the physical side of the game takes so much out of your body. It’s a matter of being smart, not overdoing it and learning to pick your spots."
-- Mike Fisher
“When you’re playing a lot of minutes against the top lines, it’s tough to remain physical all the time so you try to be more positional,” Fisher said. “Sometimes when I go on a little scoring streak, I do actually feel as though I haven’t been physical enough, but you have to conserve your energy because the physical side of the game takes so much out of your body. It’s a matter of being smart, not overdoing it and learning to pick your spots.”
5-Zdeno Chara, Boston -- In 2007-08, Chara was voted in as a starter in the All-Star Game for the first time in his career and repeated as the winner of the hardest shot competition (103.1 mph) on the radar gun. In addition to receiving his second nomination for the Norris Trophy at season’s end after establishing career highs in goals (17), assists (34) and points (51), the 6-foot-9 Chara was also a physical force along the blue. He was eighth in the League with 223 hits in 77 games. Teammate Milan Lucic, who many feel will be among the Conference leaders in the hit department this campaign, finished with 181 hits. Lucic, however, did lead his team with 35 hits, 14 more than Chara, in seven playoff games.
6-Alex Ovechkin, Washington – “Alexander the Great” makes yet another list – what a shock. In addition to being involved in 47.1 percent of his team’s total offense and 27.3 percent of his team’s total goal production in 2007-08, Ovie also led his club with 220 hits in 82 games. He finished second with 68 takeaways and also chipped in with 44 blocked shots. And, oh yes, he led the League with 32 multi-point games and 75 even-strength points (43 goals). All part in a day’s work for last year’s Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s most valuable player.
7-Fedor Tyutin, Columbus -- The Russian defenseman, who was traded by the Rangers along with Christian Backman to the Blue Jackets for Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche over the summer, was becoming a hip-checking fanatic last season. The 6-2, 210-pound Tyutin finished 11th in the League with 218 hits in 82 games with the Rangers last season and will likely see plenty of time as a top four defenseman for Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock. He has 66 points in 250 career NHL games.
8-Chris Neil, Ottawa -- The 29-year-old right wing was not only 12th in the League with 204 hits, but he ranked sixth overall with 199 penalty minutes. He’s usually penciled in for third-line duty and has customarily created plenty of space for his linemates using his 6-foot-1, 213-pound frame. He averaged just fewer than 13 minutes per game and finished with 14 assists and 20 points in 68 games. The veteran of six NHL seasons actually led the league with 288 hits in 82 games in 2006-07.
9-Paul Gaustad, Buffalo -- Known for his gritty play, Gaustad is a fan favorite in Buffalo because he’s fearless and productive. He posted a career high 10 goals and 36 points in 2007-08, working mainly on the third and fourth lines, and was re-signed by the Sabres to a four-year deal on the eve of free agency this summer. The four-season performer averaged just over 17 minutes of ice time each game, including power-play and penalty-killing minutes, and finished 13th in the League with 199 hits in 82 games. The 6-4, 222-pound center, who also sported a 54.9 face-off winning percentage, is usually parked in front of the net, seeking an opportunity for a deflection.
10-Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh -- Cooke signed a two-year deal with the Penguins in July after completing the 2007-08 season with the Capitals. He ranked 14th in the League last season with 198 hits, two more than Brandon Dubinsky (196 hits) of the Rangers. Cooke, a prime candidate for third-line duty in Pittsburgh, registered 23 points while averaging just over 13 minutes each game while splitting the season with Vancouver (61 games) and Washington (17 games). He has 210 points in 583 career games spanning nine seasons.