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Fighters still prized Enforcers look to carve out their place in new NHL

The NHL will tell you the neighborhood has changed. The potholes that made the streets impassable and strangled traffic flow supposedly have been patched.

With rules designed to clean up obstruction, arenas are now zoned for offense. The speed limits have been raised. Those shuttered storefronts at either end of the ice are open for business.

Yet even with all the beautification, most teams won't feel safe without police protection. The Buffalo Sabres, for one, believe beat cops will remain necessities in the new NHL.

"There's still the hockey mentality that if you want to go after our skill guys, we will take an extra two minutes and you will pay a price for it," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday in HSBC Arena following the first scrimmage of training camp. "That's just the law of the land, and I don't see that changing.

"Whether you go out and you run them or blindside them, if other teams feel there's no retribution the skill guys are going to take a beating."

There will, however, be a slight shift in the Sabres' approach to enforcers. The Sabres historically have employed multiple heavyweights, but this year it appears they will go with only one. Eric Boulton was let go last month and signed with the Atlanta Thrashers, leaving Andrew Peters as the lone enforcer with tangible NHL experience.

Peters' only competition in camp is Sean McMorrow, and the two fought to a draw the first time they were on the ice together in Tuesday's scrimmage.

In making the roster, Peters holds an edge over McMorrow, who has skated just 87 seconds in the NHL. Peters has a one-way NHL contract, while McMorrow on Tuesday agreed to a one-year contract that will pay him less if he clears waivers and gets assigned to the minors.

"I haven't made the team yet," Peters said. "I know it looks that way, but I'm here to make the team again. There's no room for complacency."

Neither Peters nor McMorrow will ever be confused for a winger who'll score 10 goals a season. But in today's NHL an enforcer must be able to contribute with more than mere fists.

"A lot of the enforcers now aren't going to be like the old-school guys," Peters said. "You've got to be able to play. You've got to be able to contribute and skate and get in on the forecheck."

Said Ruff: "A player can't be a liability. If you look years ago there were some players that were just tough guys you threw out there, used them and brought them back in. No longer."

Some hockey pundits have prophesied the enforcer's extinction for years, and those predictions increased with the introduction of several rules designed to increase offense. Fighting, the soothsayers said, will be less frequent.

McMorrow isn't buying it. In fact, he envisions more fighting in the new NHL because the schedules are geared toward creating rivalries. Teams will play each divisional foe eight times and each conference opponent four times a season.

"The rivalries and hatred are escalated, and that just naturally brings out more aggression," McMorrow said. "Just because there are more division games there will be more fights.

"Most of this hype is for more scoring, but I think a quarter into the season it's pretty much going to be the same as it was two years ago. There's going to be a fight per game, and with the rival teams it will never, ever, ever, ever go away.

"It's good for the league to say it's a smaller man's game, the offenses are going to open up, blah, blah, blah. That's true, but at the same time, the fighting aspect's not going to be gone. If there's smaller and more skill guys, then we've got to protect more guys. Who's going to stand up for them?"

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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