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Dropping the gloves keeps dropping off

When the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers opened the season without heavyweight enforcers, it simply underlined where the game is trending these days.

To wit, the total number of fighting majors through Tuesday's games was down 20 percent compared to the same number of games (135) a year ago.

If you go back to the first 135 games in October 2003, fighting majors are down 44 percent.

That's no coincidence. The NHL returned from the 2004-05 lockout as a different beast: a salary-cap world where the juggling of finances at times sacrificed the traditional enforcer as the brand of the game on the ice -- as skilled and fast as ever -- has made teams rethink the way they build their rosters.

Today's embracing of analytics by most NHL teams also factors in, as most heavyweight enforcers are not known for their strong Corsi rating.

Fighting remains part of the game, to be sure. Look no further than Sunday night's dustup of a game between the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks as a reminder that it's still part of the fabric.

But when Toronto demoted heavyweights Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren before the season and Philadelphia did the same with Jay Rosehill, there was a clear message sent. Two organizations that have traditionally had heavyweight enforcers were going without.

"The games are so close," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think we all rely on our top players a lot, and at points I think too much, so I think giving your so-called fourth line a couple of extra minutes, or maybe an extra three to four minutes, is becoming bigger and bigger. The guys there have to be good hockey players. I'm not saying our guy [Rosehill] that we demoted wasn't a good hockey player, but we were just looking for a few more minutes from those fourth-line guys."

In a copycat league, look at the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. There's no goon on that team. Yet they are one of the most physically imposing teams around. They have Matt Greene, Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford who drop the gloves and protect their teammates. But those guys are good hockey players too.

The Kings' fourth-line players, such as Clifford and Trevor Lewis, can also move up and down the lineup if need be for injuries or in-game matchups. You can't do that with traditional enforcers.

It's a realization that was made in Toronto.

"Colton worked hard and brought other elements besides fighting," Leafs GM Dave Nonis told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "He did a good job for us and did play in the playoffs when fighting wasn't part of the game. But the actual minutes that we're trying to pull out of our fourth line and the combinations that we want available for the coaches has lent itself to a different style of player right now."

The Leafs were essentially a three-line team on most nights last season, Orr and McLaren playing limited minutes. The best teams in this league are truly four-line teams. It's what the Leafs aspire to, and at the very least, they hope they have options on their fourth line that can lead to more flexibility.

"There are different options there for us now, different options for the third and fourth line and even the second line, for that matter," said Nonis. "You see a guy like [Daniel] Winnik play on the second line or the third or fourth line. Those options were not available to [Leafs coach] Randy [Carlyle] before.

"You look at a lot of the teams that have had success the last couple of years. They're getting minutes out of their fourth line, and they're not just two or three minutes; sometimes it's 10 or 12 minutes. And players are moving up and down the lineup. That's the direction I think the league is moving in."

The Detroit Red Wings were ahead of the curve in this way, beginning with their Cup titles in 1997 and '98.

"One of our strengths was our ability to roll four lines and get contributions over the grind of 82 games and, especially in the playoffs, get that secondary scoring that took the pressure off [Steve] Yzerman, [Brendan] Shanahan and [Sergei] Fedorov," Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We had toughness built into the middle of those teams with guys like Shanahan, with guys like [Darren] McCarty, with guys like [Martin] Lapointe. I'm not against fighting, [but] we didn't have the toughness on the fringes. We had it built in the middle of the team. And then in the 2000s, and coming out of the 2005 work stoppage, I continued to have that philosophy that I wanted to have four lines who could contribute.

"The desire to have a fourth line who can chip in offensively in a secondary role, or kill penalties, or be able to check the other team's top six forwards to take pressure off your top offensive forwards, really that’s been the driving force behind any decisions that we've made in putting together the Detroit Red Wings."

Sometimes, trends reverse. The "new NHL" of 2005-06, with so many power plays and so much wide-open play, saw only 0.38 fights per game, down dramatically from 0.64 fights per game in 2003-04. But that number came back up to 0.60 fights a game in 2008-09 -- the highest average since 2004.

Since 2008-09, however, the number has decreased again, fights per game falling under 0.50 a game for each season after 2011.

Last season, fights per game were down to 0.38 per game, the lowest since 2005-06.

Hard not to think that trend will continue.