The changes that the NHL has been making to the rulebook over the past several seasons have nearly eliminated the traditional goon from NHL rosters. If a guy can't skate, shoot and score -- or isn't a stalwart in stopping the other team from shooting and scoring -- he's basically taking up a roster spot in a sport that has only gotten faster and more dynamic. And for what? To play four minutes a game to challenge the other team's goon to a knuckle-swinging contest?
There are still a number of those players in the league, but it only seems like a matter of time before that role is eliminated entirely, with the more well-rounded players on the roster picking up the intimidation slack. Shifting to the fantasy realm, the goons will wreak havoc on the rest of the categories if you rely on them for your PIM production; if they're only skating a few minutes a game, they're probably not doing much offensively and that equals a wasted slot in the lineup (and issues for the average ice-time category, to be sure).
When it comes to fantasy relevant high-PIM players, they essentially break down into two categories: power forwards -- think Cam Neely in his heyday, or players like Keith Tkachuk and Brenden Morrow more recently -- and their defensive counterparts. Let's take a look at some current examples of each type of player, and where they should be taken in a standard ESPN draft for a 10-team league.
For the first several seasons after the turn of the millennium, Morrow was the ideal power forward candidate in fantasy and reality. His hard-nosed style engendered lots of points and penalty minutes, and the fact that he was a top-six forward for the Stars meant that you didn't have to sacrifice the average ice-time category to enjoy his exploits. We're projecting Morrow for just 48 points and 69 PIM after 56 and 76, respectively, in 2010-11, but there's a new class of effective players in that same agitator mold.
Corey Perry, RW, Anaheim Ducks. Projected round: 1. Perry has been over the 100-minute threshold in PIM the past four seasons, and there's no reason to expect a regression in 2011-12. Not only that, but Perry netted 50 goals in 2010-11. While he may not -- OK, probably not -- hit that benchmark again, he's been good for no less than 27 goals and 200 shots per season during his 100-plus PIM streak, and his average ice-time was second in the league amongst forwards last season (22:19 per contest).
David Backes, C, St. Louis Blues. Projected round: 3. Backes was a 30-30-30 player in 2010-11 -- 31 goals, 31 assists and a plus-32 in plus/minus -- and he racked up 93 PIM as well. In his four full NHL seasons, Backes has averaged over 115 PIM per campaign, so some more malfeasance is expected. Furthermore, with the amount of young, promising talent on the Blues' roster, Backes should continue to be able to fill up multiple categories on offense, too.
Danny Briere, C, Philadelphia Flyers. Projected round: 5. Given Briere's 179-pound frame, it's a little surprising to see him on our list of "power forwards," but over the past six seasons, Briere has hovered around the PIM-per-game mark, so this has been a habit of his. On the offensive end, the line of Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino was the Flyers' most consistently productive a season ago, and while Leino is gone, Briere and Hartnell will continue to be valuable for their contributions across the board: Amongst the players we've projected to be over the 80 PIM mark in 2011-12, Briere trails only Perry in projected points.
Milan Lucic, LW, Boston Bruins. Projected round: 5. Lucic's role has changed over the course of his short career in Beantown. At first, he threw his weight (and his fists) around, but in 2010-11, he elected to let others do the knuckle-smashing, generating only seven major penalties in the season past -- and just two fights -- though he did rack up 121 PIM overall. That number could take a hit this season, as his role on the B's top scoring line demands that he stay on the ice, but his chemistry with Nathan Horton and David Krejci should continue to develop, and those additional points somewhat offset the loss in PIMs for his overall value.
Alex Burrows, LW, Vancouver Canucks. Projected round: 8. Burrows has been riding shotgun for the Sedins on the Canucks' top scoring line since late in the 2008-09 season, and his aggressive style really brings some bite to the overall attack. As it turns out, 2010-11 was somewhat of a disappointing campaign for those that rostered Burrows in fantasy, as he registered only 48 points and 77 PIM after 67 (including 35 goals) and 121 the season prior. Burrows was quite the pest throughout the playoffs, racking up 34 PIM in 25 games, so it would seem that he'll be back to his old tricks next season. As for the scoring, it'd be unrealistic to ever imagine him as a point-per-game player, but 60 points is not out of the question.
Other forwards projected for over 40 points and 80 PIM (by projected draft position): Scott Hartnell, LW, Philadelphia Flyers (Round 8); Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Colorado Avalanche (Round 9); Brandon Dubinsky, C, New York Rangers (Round 10); Ryane Clowe, LW, San Jose Sharks (Round 11); Steve Downie, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (Round 14); Evander Kane, C, Winnipeg Jets (Round 21); Benoit Pouliot, LW, Boston Bruins (undrafted).
The rigors of playing defense can lead some blue-liners to draw a wealth of minor penalties, so even if a player is not considered too rough-and-tumble, he can provide a boost in this category. In fact, it might be a little easier to devote defensive spots to the pursuit of PIM than it is to sacrifice a spot amongst the forwards, given that many top-four D-men are reasonably productive in this regard. During the late rounds, it's time to target these gents to fill out the roster. But there is a group of ten particular blue-liners that is projected to hit the 30-point, 80-PIM benchmark this season, and some deserve extra consideration a bit earlier than that.
Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets. Projected round: 1. Byfuglien came up as a defensemen, was then deployed as a forward during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks, and returned to the back end with his trade to the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Jets). Throughout his career, however, he's produced PIM at a minute-per-game pace, and there's no reason to think that will change when the winters get considerably colder in Manitoba this season. Byfuglien is much more than that, of course: he was the top defensemen last season in goals (20), fourth in points (53) and tops by a wide margin in shots on goal (347). His legal issues could warrant some attention from the league, but otherwise, he appears poised to build on his stardom (both in fantasy and reality) in 2011-12.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins. Projected round: 2. Chara is one of the more intimidating specimens in all of pro sports, and he has no trouble throwing his 6-foot-9 frame around to send a message. The native of Trencin, Slovakia amassed fewer than 90 PIM for the second-straight campaign in 2010-11, but his 14 goals were good for sixth amongst D-men, and he was once again amongst the league leaders in average ice-time. With a lucky bounce here and a quick whistle there, he could easily hit the 50-point, 100-PIM benchmark, a feat he last accomplished back in 2007-08.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins. Projected round: 3 Speaking of players going 50-100, the Penguins' top D-man performed such a feat in 2010-11, nearly doubling his output in both regards from a season prior. That's no surprise, as he inherited much of the ice-time vacated by the departure of Sergei Gonchar. In fact, Letang had notched 40 points in his first 45 games last season, before the lack of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin really took its toll. While the scoring took a hit without the Pens' dual All-World players, Letang maintained his pace at picking up penalties. So even if Crosby is not ready to go for the start of the season, he'll continue to be productive in the PIM and average ice-time categories in spite of the possible scoring decrease.
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks. Projected round: 12 After two injury-plagued campaigns in 2008-09 and 2009-10, Burns had a bit of a breakout in 2010-11, with 46 points (including 14 on the power play) and 98 PIM. The only big hit to his value as a fantasy asset was his plus/minus, which registered at minus-10. A move from Minnesota to San Jose should help that somewhat, and given the five-year extension he signed with the Sharks, it's expected that he'll play a major role for the team right out of the gate this season.
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens. Projected round: 14 With just one full NHL season under his belt, it's a little trickier to project Subban's performance this season than the others on this list. There is some thought that as he grows into more of a responsible defender, his PIM will drop from the 124 he registered in 2010-11. However, the malfeasance may just be part of his inherent playing style: in four seasons in junior, he had 353 PIM in 234 games, and added 82 in 77 AHL games before his call-up. Either way, Subban has excellent skills on the offensive end, so even if there is a slight drop-off in PIM, he can make up for it in other ways.
Other defensemen projected for over 30 points and 80 PIM (by projected draft position): Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs (Round 17); Sheldon Souray, Dallas Stars (Round 19); Kevin Bieksa, Vancouver Canucks (Round 20); Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders (Round 23); Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning (Round 25).
Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy analyst and Rumor Central contributor for ESPN.com.