Two of the league's top agitators—really, they're not just fighters—are rookies in Columbus and New Jersey
WHILE BLACKHAWKS winger Patrick Kane and Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom have been the most impressive rookies this season, other first-year players have had a more powerful impact. Literally. The Blue Jackets' Jared Boll, who at week's end led the league with 19 fights and was second in penalty minutes with 164, and the Devils' David Clarkson, who had team-highs of 116 penalty minutes and 14 fights, have drawn notice with their energy and their fists. Boll isn't a dominating heavyweight—according to hockeyfights.com, The Ring magazine of hockey knuckle-chucking, he had lost more fights than he'd won—but the willingness to slug it out and potentially alter the tenor of the game can be more significant than winning the fight.
Boll and Clarkson are part of a pugnacious rookie class that includes five who are among the league's top 10 in penalty minutes and four of the seven most active fighters. But unlike Flyers rookie Riley Cote, an old-school tough guy—"Cote doesn't even realize there's a puck out there," one Eastern Conference center sniffed—Boll and Clarkson fit the agitator role, which, like flat-screen TVs in sports-fans' living rooms, has gone from a curio to almost a necessity in the NHL. (Daniel Carcillo, who led the NHL with 204 penalty minutes, was another member of the club until the Coyotes sent him to the minors on Monday.) "These are guys who can compete between the whistles and not just after them," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock says. "You physically intimidate opponents more through hitting than fighting."
Boll's combativeness allowed the Blue Jackets to trade enforcer Jody Shelley to the Sharks last week. Shelley is purely a fighter but Hitchcock envisions Boll, a 6'2", 206-pound right wing, as a Rick Tocchet--type player, capable of riding shotgun for the stars and doing more than his share of scoring. Still, Boll, who has three game-winners among his five goals this year, knew early what would get him to the NHL. Raised in Crystal Lake, Ill., Boll spurned a scholarship to Minnesota-Duluth in favor of playing junior hockey in Canada because of the NCAA's intolerance of fighting. "[Fighting] was obviously part of my game," he says. "I figured if I went to school, I'd lose that."
The 23-year-old Clarkson can probably dial back the fisticuffs a bit following the return last week of New Jersey roughneck Cam Janssen from a shoulder injury. That could be a boon to a winger skilled enough to have played in the YoungStars game at All-Star weekend. The 6'1", 200-pound Clarkson, who had six goals through Sunday after scoring a creditable 33 his final year of juniors in 2004--05, only needs to get in touch with his inner sniper. Indeed, at a practice last month, Devils coach Brent Sutter tied a white towel near the blade of Clarkson's stick—his way of saying that if the rookie can't remember to keep his stick on the ice, he may as well use it as a flagpole.
That will be the only white flag the agitating class of 2008 waves.
ONLY AT SI.COM Scott Wraight's power rankings, every Tuesday.