There are a number of titles one can give to a hockey player whose speciality is the physical game.
Enforcer. Fighter. Tough guy.
Craftsman might best suit the Florida Panthers’ Krys Barch.
The nine-year veteran, in his second stint with the Cats, has found his niche by evolving with the role once regarded as a team’s policeman protecting star players.
As the need to drop the gloves has diminished in the NHL in recent years, Barch has found other ways to contribute. Usually held to a team-low 6:55 ice time per game, he is a positive influence on the bench, locker room and at practice.
"Even if he doesn’t play as much as other guys, on the bench, he is always positive. He’s always cheering the guys," Jonathan Huberdeau said. "I know he’s really into the game and it shows how good of a leader he is, as a person, and in the room, too. He knows the game well."
A student of the game, Barch loves to talk about all aspects of hockey. He remains a firm, vocal believer that fighting should remain a part of the game. He occasionally takes to his Twitter account to share his thoughts and analyze the actions that spark fights around the league.
"There are little nuances on the ice and guys are putting it on the line in different courses of action," Barch explained.
"It will always be part of the game. It’s what separates our sport from a lot of others. It’s like my dad always says to me, ‘It is a sport, but it is also entertainment.’ Some people forget that."
Barch is aware of the risk the role carries and respects the fraternity among the players who are called to do it.
"I think for the most part you have respect for each other because you know what you have to do," Barch said. "You’re putting yourself in harm’s way when you get into something like that, and with the size of the guys now — 230 pounds, 240, 245 — you know if you’re getting into something, or something could go down, you could get injured. It’s not what you want to happen, but it’s part of the game."
Though Barch figures his fight count has reached the 200 mark, the winger was not always an enforcer.
A fourth-round pick by the Washington Capitals in 1998, Barch wouldn’t have been considered an enforcer based on his numbers in juniors. He never registered more than 80 penalty minutes in a full season, and in terms of scoring, he reached the 20-goal and 40-point plateau.
Once at the AHL and twice at the ECHL level did Barch register double digits in goals.
It was not until the 2004-05 lockout season when he amassed 154 penalty minutes, the most in his career at any level, with the ECHL’s Greeneville Grrrowl. He also finished with 30 points that year. The display of skill and toughness is what helped Barch break into and stick at the NHL with the Dallas Stars starting in 2006.
The mix of skill sets is also something Panthers assistant coach Brian Skrudland has tried to bring out more this season.
"If you watch this guy practice, he never misses," Skrudland says. "You’d think he’s a 50, 60-goal scorer in practice to be honest with you.
"I’ve tried to change that in him, to let him understand that yeah there is that role, but he’s still a player. We’ve really been working on a lot of things. He works as hard as our hardest working player in this dressing room, both on and off the ice."
Over the last five years, the percentage of NHL games with at least one fight has hovered in the 34 to 41 percent range, according to hockeyfights.com. This year, players are on pace to skate in 382 games with a bout, the lowest number in nearly a decade.
The role of the enforcer, which has already seen a dramatic decline since the freewheeling days of the 1980s and 1990s, has diminished further.
The statistics don’t bother Barch, though.
"I think if you ask top-end guys on teams if they’d like to have somebody out there with that mindframe of sticking up for each other, they would answer [positively]," Barch said. "Ask Toronto’s Phil Kessel if he likes having a tough fourth line. I’m sure he’ll say all day long, ‘Yeah.’ And it goes across the league."
Or just a few steps away in the Panthers locker room.
Huberdeau, one of Florida’s smaller skaters, is glad to have a teammate "who protects players."
"Sometimes you get some guy under your skin, so it’s good to have a guy on your team that can do that," Huberdeau said. "You feel a little bit safer. You can do the same, and you know somebody is going to back you up."
Which is exactly what Barch did when Huberdeau got back to the bench after his first NHL fight with Toronto’s Jake Gardiner in early February. He gave the sophomore a pat on the back and a few tips.
"He said I did a good job," Huberdeau said. "Sometimes I don’t want to get hit and I put my head down, but a guy can come in with an uppercut. So [Barch said] ‘to keep my head up and put my shoulder in front.’"
Whether it’s providing protection, offering support or even sharing with teammates what he sees from the bench, Barch stays plenty busy. For the veteran, details are important.
"It’s interesting to see how everything is working and how it will evolve. I think it will evolve into having guys that can play the game, but can still bring [a willingness to fight] as well. I think those guys that were just sent out there for two minutes to fight for really no reason are fading away."
For everything Barch brings to the Cats, the craftsman continues to thrive.