Did you know that the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres played a hockey game last night? That Phil Kessel scored two goals? That Jake Gardiner and James Van Riemsdyk both had successful efforts that made their opponents look like ragdolls? The Leafs almost blew a 4-1 lead (sorry), but ultimately won in front of the home town fans. However, nobody cares about that. The focus? A highly controversial line brawl.
At first glance, it was extremely entertaining, even if you aren’t huge on the idea of fighting in hockey. I hate staged fighers and goons, but even I checked that to the door and was scared of blinking and missing even a millisecond as everything unfolded. As the dust settles, there’s been a lot of controversy over a bunch of the small moments, and I try to break it all down, from both perspectives.
What Happened: Randy Carlyle put out a line of Carter Ashton, Tyler Bozak, and Phil Kessel to face off against a Sabres 4th line that included John Scott. Soon as the puck dropped, all hell broke loose.
In His Defence: Carlyle stated in his post-game media scrum that he chose to put out the scoring line because he wanted to diffuse the tension from the previous shift. Theoretically, sending out two guys you don’t expect to fight and one who is trying to show his non-fighting value to the team seems like a good idea.
The Argument Against: Your team didn’t just win a fight. Cory Tropp went down hard, was about a step away from being knocked out, and definitely hurt. The Sabres have been hell bent on proving that they won’t get pushed around ever since the Lucic/Miller incident in November 2011. Ron Rolston immediately puts on John Scott, a 6’8 270lb "player" who produces 0.027 points per game, and 65.4 penalty minutes per point. He’s shadowing Phil Kessel if you put him on. You have first change. Putting out the first line is a suicide mission.
Conclusion: Clearly, there was no diffusing happening. I wouldn’t have put out the first line. The Sabres are a known quantity. John Scott is a known quantity. It’s an exhibition game, where the goons tend to be at their meanest, and the games tend to be at their most meaningless. The Leafs were winning, and didn’t need to rush out there and try to get another goal in defiance of a tense situation. If you want to diffuse a situation? Get the grittier guys out there and get them to say they aren’t interested. That way the opposition’s goons don’t have the targets they want, and if they still go nuts anyway, you’re better prepared.
By The Way: There’s also the argument that Scott would have waited for Kessel anyway. Possible, but put Kessel on when Scott gets off. It gives him time to possibly re-evaluate, and if he goes immediately back on, the blame is now on Rolston and he can be punished as well.
What Happened: John Scott tells Phil Kessel that he’s going to jump him. Kessel chirps back, not taking it seriously. Scott shoves, Kessel shoves back, realize what’s about to happen, and starts swinging his stick. Eventually he fights Ryan Flynn and, shockingly, destroys him.
In His Defence: The issue at hand isn’t his fight with Flynn, but rather the slashing. How do you defend Kessel here? Well, he’s nine inches shorter and seventy five pounds lighter than Scott, who already has his gloves off and is beginning to give chase. I’d be taking the reach and strength advantage and swinging my stick too.
The Argument Against: …until he went away. Which he did, with TJ Brennan and Carter Ashton jumping to Kessel’s defence. Phil Kessel is my favourite Leafs player, and one of my favourite NHL players. But lets call a spade a spade – swinging at Scott two more times while his back was turned is nothing short of gutless. There’s also the spear that came afterwards, but that’s open to interpretation, seeing as nobody can agree how "vicious" it was.
Conclusion: Phil Kessel will probably get suspended for his stick swinging, and it’s deserved. I understand that he was probably running on the special kind of adrenaline you get when it feels like your life may legitimately be on the line, but going back for a second and third swing is never acceptable.
By The Way: Since video of this fight is now on World Star Hip Hop, we must now refer to Phil exclusively as ‘Trill Kessel‘
What Happened: In order to protect his star player, Clarkson hopped off the bench to control John Scott. He never really got to Scott though, as he made it over just as the referees began to control him. By leaving the bench, he gets an automatic ten game suspension.
In His Defence: He’s protecting his star player. The second he hopped over, he was the most intimidating Leafs player on the ice. In a situation like that, you’re not thinking about the ten games you miss, so much as the ten games he may miss if Scott beats him into a pulp.
The Argument Against: He *is* a star player now. Whether you think he is in terms of his talent is up for debate (I’m not buying the hype, but I think he’s a good player). But he’s paid like one. He’s got the longest contract in Leafs history. He was the free agent signing this offseason. Clarkson needs to realize that he’s not the puncher anymore, he’s a go-to guy that can punch. He didn’t, made a snap reaction, and now gives up hundreds of thousand dollars and misses a month. By the way, the cash he forfeits doesn’t come off the Salary Cap, and means the Leafs have to keep an extra player up for those games, putting them more in a hole.
Conclusion: I get what Clarkson was trying to do. But if he’s selling us that he’s evolved as a player, he can’t play enforcer in a situation like this. The Leafs are now in a tough bind for the first month of the year because he went out to, effectively, skate around and shrug.
By The Way: Two things. First off, you can’t blame Troy Bodie for not being the guy to jump out there, or Jamie Devane for not running out of the penalty box. Yes, both of those two are better suited to clear the bench, but this is training camp and both are fighting to get spots on an NHL roster. A ten game suspension? Suicidal. Especially for Bodie – at his age, if the AHL doesn’t match the suspension, he gets sent down to the Marlies and probably never plays an NHL game again. Devane probably waits at least a year until the Leafs see room to leave him as a healthy scratch for a bit.
Secondly, massive props to Joffrey Lupul for stopping Nazem Kadri from being the leaper. Kadri being a worse potential loss than Clarkson aside, Kadri is also much less fit to stand up to everybody else. Physical ability aside, there’s the rage factor too. Clarkson intimidates people. Nazem Kadri is disliked by several Sabres regulars and hated by every single player in that lineup that has played for Rochester in the past three years (he’s a pest against them to say the least, and that includes 10 games a season and a playoff series). Kadri jumps off, and that’s a bench clearing brawl, mostly because half the men in white would run out to get a piece of him.
What Happened: Bernier, not wanting to be left out, fought Ryan Miller in a lopsided effort.
In His Defence: That was awesome, and gave Drew MacIntyre time to close out a win against his former organization. Ryan Miller was probably relieved to leave that mess of a game, seeing as he stopped more fists than pucks when all was said and done.
The Argument Against: What argument against? The worst thing you can possibly say is that he has an unfair advantage in the fan PR war against James Reimer, but who’s fault is that?
Conclusion: Do you, Jonathan Bernier. Do you.
By The Way: Stop comparing this to Felix Potvin vs. Ron Hextall. Bernier fared MUCH better than Potvin did. People forget that the reason that fight was a big deal was because he was facing the only "heavyweight goaltender" there was. He didn’t dominate Hextall, he just surprisingly slightly won. Bernier, on the other hand, competes against Ray Emery for the title of best assault on a Buffalo Sabres goalie.
That whole ordeal was incredibly entertaining, and I’m sure we’ll all look back on it as fondly in a little while as we did as we watched it unfold. But with everything considered, there was a lot of questionable things that happened on the Leafs part. Kessel went too far. Clarkson went too far. Carlyle should have put out a different line. They may be in more cap trouble than they thought as a result, and are definitely going to miss having their second line right winger out for ten games.
Also, I hope that this isn’t used as proof for the need for "enforcers", seeing as this started with two minor league players fighting each other to show value, and with an enforcer jumping a star palyer.
But hey, NHL hockey is an entertainment product, and its safe to say that that was incredibly entertaining to watch. Let’s just hope that if a line brawl happens again, we don’t have so many questions and we can just enjoy it.
(PS: Shoutout to Tyler Bozak for being the only Leafs player to lose his fight. Sorry Tyler, I had to)