A "need" that Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford wanted to address last off-season was acquiring an enforcer to help prevent other teams from taking liberties on some of Carolina's more skilled players. The Hurricanes specifically wanted to invest in some protection for Jeff Skinner, who has already suffered two concussions in his young career, and the old theory is that getting a "tough guy" will help prevent other teams from roughing up your stars. The times have changed in the NHL, though and enforcers don't play as big of a role as they used to. In today's NHL, most "tough guys" play less than 10 shifts a game and aren't even on the ice long enough to serve as "protection" for star players. They aren't very skilled players, so coaches generally don't give them a lot of ice time and it's a rare occurrence for an enforcer to be out there in a key situation. This is the role of the enforcer in the NHL now and why the idea of them providing "protection" for stars is silly. The Hurricanes found this out the hard way when they acquiring Kevin Westgarth from the Los Angeles Kings this season.
Compared to other enforcers across the league, you can do a lot worse than Westgarth because while he isn't particularly a useful player at even strength, he isn't a complete liability like Jared Boll, Cam Janssen or Colton Orr. That being said, he still doesn't contribute in many other areas outside of his intangibles and as a result, he spent a fair mount of the season in the press box and whenever he was in the lineup, he played an average of about five minutes per game. You need to be able to roll all four lines to be a competitive team in the NHL now and dressing Westgarth to play 5-8 shifts a night isn't accomplishing that. I don't have that many bad things to say about Westgarth as a person because he knows his role and says all the right things, but I don't think the Hurricanes were icing their best possible lineup when he was playing.
As far as him "protecting" the Hurricanes other players goes, Skinner was hurt twice this year and Westgarth was in the lineup in both games. Neither injury was his fault, but this shows the limitation of enforcers in today's NHL. It's tough for them to protect star players because they are rarely going to be on the ice at the same time as them and they only take action after said injury occurs. Protecting younger players is always going to be a tough challenge but there were probably better ways to do it than acquiring an enforcer.
After the jump, we'll talk about what contributions Westgarth made when he actually got to play.
Westgarth's usage was that of a typical enforcer. He averaged about 10 or fewer shifts per game, was usually sent out in the offensive zone against other teams fourth lines and wasn't used on either special teams units. This stayed consistent throughout the season whenever he was in the lineup.
Westgarth got 10 minutes of ice time in only one game this season, which was the last game of the year when the Hurricanes were playing down two skaters. He also scored two goals that game and each of them came when he was taking shifts with the first line. The odds of that happening again are slim to none but hey, at least he ended the year on a high note.
5v5 Fenwick Dif/20
5v5 Chance Diff/20
Westgarth's saving grace was that he wasn't bad defensively and he managed to avoid being a complete disaster in his own zone. Unfortunately, he was one of the worst forwards on the team at controlling puck-possession and scoring chances because his offensive contributions were slim to none. It's a little interesting that his numbers ended up like this because Westgarth started a lot of his shifts in the offensive zone but he couldn't do much to keep the play there. That's typical of most enforcers, but Westgarth's solid defensive play is what kept his territorial performance from being Eric Boulton-bad.
Another interesting fact about Westgarth's season is that he ended up with a respectable scoring rate for a fourth liner, and all four of his points came in the final three games of the season. Again, at least he ended the year on a good note.
Westgarth is one of the least-skilled players on the team, so he isn't expected to handle the puck in the neutral zone that often or carry the puck into the offensive zone. His numbers reflect this well. He also doesn't play that much so he didn't have many zone entries in general compared to the rest of the forwards.
Season Grade: C
It might be weird that I'm giving Westgarth a C because his underlying numbers were among the worst on the team, but my grading is based on my expectations for each player and I think I had the bar set lower for Westgarth than anyone else. My hope was for Westgarth to not be a complete liability whenever he got to play and he managed to do that. His terrible offensive numbers led him to being a negative in territorial play, but he was actually fairly solid defensively and that prevented him from getting crushed at even strength. In other words, Westgarth's performance was basically in-line with my expectations so he gets an average grade from me.
The Final Word
Westgarth's performance was basically as advertised in the games that he got to play in. He was used sparingly, got into a handful of fights and wasn't particularly useful other than providing things like "grit," "toughness" and whatever other intangibles you want to throw out there. If you are going to play an enforcer, there are much worse options out there than Westgarth, but if you are a team that plans to roll four lines, using a roster spot on someone who plays, at most, eight shifts a game isn't accomplishing that goal. This is why I have trouble seeing Westgarth as part of the Hurricanes future plans even if his performance wasn't as bad as a typical enforcer. Do I think the Hurricanes need to get tougher to play against? Absolutely, but adding an enforcer does little to accomplish that because enforcers don't have many redeeming qualities other than face-punching.