Washington Capitals winger Chris Simon is the very image of intimidation -- a 6-foot-4, 235-pound package of muscle, ripped shoulders bursting out of his tank top, tattoos blazing, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, jet black shades on his face.
But for the past two seasons, Simon has been unable to use his physical gifts. Injuries have prevented one of the NHL's true heavyweights from dropping the gloves. Finally healthy, at least for now, Simon is eager to regain his reputation as the league's fiercest enforcer, with Brendan Witt eager to back him up -- the Robin to Simon's Batman. The dynamic duo is likely to get a heavy workload since tough guys Dale Hunter, Craig Berube, Enrico Ciccone and Mark Tinordi no longer are with the Capitals, a result of the club's effort to get younger and faster.
"Definitely, I'm excited to get at it," Simon said. "I know what I have to do to help the team. I've never been a guy that's backed away from fighting. I've always enjoyed it. I know what to expect. Some teams are going to think maybe I'm not 100 percent, and they might want to try something. But I don't think it'll take long for guys to realize I'm 100 percent again.
"Teams know that when I'm healthy, if they take shots at someone on the ice, they're going to have to suffer the consequences. And we've got guys like Brendan Witt to back me up. As long as I'm healthy, I don't think that's going to be a part of the game we're going to have to worry about."
Simon fought in just one game last season; he played in only 23 games and his season ended in January because of shoulder surgery. He hasn't gone over the modest 100 penalty-minute plateau since 1996-97. That wasn't such a factor, but might be now. Hunter was the epitome of toughness and ranks second on the NHL's all-time penalty minutes list. Tinordi was well-known for his crushing body checks and quick fists. Berube was one of the most feared enforcers of this decade. Ciccone was in the league because of his fists alone. All four were beyond contributing regularly on the ice, but with them around, opposing teams refrained from taking liberties.
No one on the Capitals' roster posted 100 penalty minutes last season. Their defense isn't as physical as it was last season, though it is much more mobile. General Manager George McPhee, a pugnacious player in his day, said that's by design. With more teams in the league, making the playoffs is tougher and costly penalties sting even more. Also, regular season overtime periods this season will be played with the teams at four skaters per side, and teams will earn a standings point from overtime losses. That means the playoff race should be tight all season, and there will be no room for guys who can't keep up.
"That's the way the league is going," McPhee said. "And now having two refs on the ice, you can't get away with what you used to be able to get away with. A lot of successful teams now don't have any toughness at all, and it's hard to play with older players in games against them. Ottawa, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Dallas -- how tough are those teams? The toughest teams last year finished in the bottom of the league -- Vancouver, Chicago, our team.
"You can't have guys hurting you with penalties in the regular season. You don't want to look back on three or four or 10 games we gave away because of stupid penalties. Personally, I'm tired of coming out of every game the last couple of years where the other team had more power plays than we did. And that was a function of two things -- team speed, because if you're slower you start hooking and grabbing -- and also reputation, because [officials] just look at Hunter and Tinordi sometimes and give them a penalty."
Coach Ron Wilson feels the same way, though he hopes to see his defensemen play with more of an edge. Witt loves the rough stuff ("Anyone who comes in front of the net is going to get a stick in the back," he said), and Wilson wants big players such as Joe Reekie, Sergei Gonchar and Dmitri Mironov to play more physically in the corners and in front of the net.
The onus to play tough will fall to everyone. Certain players will be called on to police the ice and set a physical tone, but even goal scorers will be asked to stand up to cheap shots and intimidation tactics.
"We definitely have to be team-tough," Witt said. "Because two or three guys every night are not going to be able to do it. We want respect, and in this league you don't get respect, you earn it.
"If someone slashes Bonzai [Peter Bondra], we have to go out and make an example of that guy. Then teams will open their eyes and realize, `Hey, we can't do that because there's a couple of loonies over there, and we don't want to see those guys.' As long as we're team-tough we won't get messed around with."
One glare from a healthy Simon could go a long way to that end.