Since Sunday night’s brawl between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, there’s been quite a bit of reaction from just about everybody who’s associated with hockey on what took place. Most of that reaction has focused on the question: Who should be held responsible for the game’s violent events?
It’s a complex question, and the answer, of course, is that just about everybody involved should be held responsible. It obviously starts with John Scott who made the unfortunate decision to start the whole brawl by going after Phil Kessel before a faceoff. Make no mistake, the only purpose John Scott serves is to fight people, but really, why go after Kessel? There’s an unwritten code in hockey that goons don’t go after skill players. Scott broke “The Code”, and in the process kicked off a series of unfortunate events that turned into an all-out brawl.
Kessel deserves some blame because he didn’t exactly do anything to diffuse the situation. He reacted to Scott goading him, and then proceeded to slash him across the ankles multiple times when Scott went after him. Kessel could have simply ignored Scott, and Scott probably would have found another Leaf to fight after the faceoff. Kessel now faces a possible suspension that probably won’t carry into the regular season, but still, it wasn’t a smart reaction on Kessel’s part.
David Clarkson, upon seeing the events unfold, showed an alarming lack of judgment by jumping off the bench and joining the fray. As you probably know by now, Clarkon will have to sit out the first ten regular season games with an automatic suspension for leaving the player’s bench to join a fight. He was brought in partly because of his grit and toughness, and wants to prove his worth to his new employers and fans, but really, he has to show some discretion in that situation. His skillset serves no purpose for the Leafs sitting in the press box.
That brings us to Leafs’ head coach Randy Carlyle. Carlyle sent Kessel over the boards knowing full well that an overly heated John Scott was on the ice. However, he didn’t expect Scott to target Kessel, and I don’t think anybody expected it either. You can look back with hindsight and say Carlyle shouldn’t have taken the risk, but nine times out of ten, I love having Kessel on the ice against a useless goon who can’t skate.
There had just been a fight in which Corey Tropp of the Sabres was taken down by Jamie Devane and hit his head off the ice, knocking him out cold. It was a frightening play, but I don’t think Devane was in any way at fault for it. Nevertheless, emotions were at a boiling point, and Scott was even yelling at the Leafs’ bench during the ensuing stoppage in play. Sabres’ coach Ron Rolston sent Scott on the ice with orders to fight, and Kessel was the player who lined up across from him.
Sure, Carlyle probably should have played a different line, but he was the coach who was trying to diffuse the situation. Rolston, on the other hand, poured gasoline on the proverbial fire by throwing a raging Scott on the ice with direct orders to punch somebody. Unfortunately, this is something that happens all too often in today’s NHL, so Rolston will probably remain scot-free from any discipline from the NHL. But he deserves more blame than Carlyle, in my opinion, for his actions.
This brings me to a larger point about the NHL’s goon culture. The Leafs led the league in fighting majors last season, and are tied for the lead in that category so far in the preseason. Carlyle dressed two players (Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren) for most of last season who can be classified as goons. Their only purpose is to fight other goons. Orr averaged 6:23 of ice-time and scored four points in 44 games in 2012-13. McLaren averaged 5:12 and had five points in 36 games. They are fourth-line players given minimal minutes because they are defensive liabilities who don’t score.
As I mentioned earlier, Scott’s anger toward the Leafs was because of a fight between Corey Tropp and Jamie Devane. Devane split his time in the ECHL and AHL last season, scoring six points in 44 games. He compiled 86 penalty minutes in those games. Rest assured, the only reason Devane was in the lineup on Sunday night was because of Carlyle’s insistence on dressing fighters.
Basically, as James Mirtle aptly put it yesterday, the style of play that Carlyle wants the Leafs to play came back to bite him in the butt. The bad blood between the Leafs and Sabres is only beginning. You can be sure Carlyle will have Orr and McLaren dressed in every game the team plays against the Sabres this season. Ditto for the Sabres with Scott, Patrick Kaleta and whoever else is on the team for the sole purpose of punching people in the face. Simply put, those games will quickly turn into proverbial gong shows. Some people might laud those events as the result of “a great rivalry”, but really it’s just more needless shenanigans that shouldn’t be in the game in the first place.