TORONTO — The 10-game suspension for David Clarkson was a no-brainer. Deciding what to do with Phil Kessel is much less clear.
The Toronto Maple Leafs winger has been summoned for a phone hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday to discuss his role in the melee with the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.
John Scott, the Sabres enforcer, touched off the line brawl when he decided to go after the much smaller Toronto forward during a faceoff. Kessel responded by taking two big whacks at Scott and later jabbed him with the blade of his stick – good enough to earn him a match penalty.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan couldn’t have liked seeing that very much, although the reaction from Kessel was somewhat justified given the circumstances surrounding the play. Self-defence is a pretty good argument when the other guy outweighs you by about 70 pounds and comes after you unprovoked.
As a result, it says here that Kessel’s punishment shouldn’t include any missed time in the regular season. What were his other choices?
Of course, it will ultimately be up to Shanahan and his lieutenants to figure out where the lines need to be drawn in this instance. They were tied up with a board of governors meeting and discipline hearings for Vancouver Canucks forwards Dale Wiese and Zack Kassian on Monday, when they also confirmed Clarkson’s automatic ban for jumping off the bench in defence of Kessel.
The 10-game suspension will cost $269,230.80 in salary and keep Clarkson from making his Leafs regular-season debut until Oct. 25 in Columbus.
It is tough to find any direct comparisons in the Kessel-Scott incident since it is so rare to see a massive NHL enforcer target a star player. However, the one game suspension of former Habs forward Mike Cammalleri during the 2010 pre-season has some similarities. In that instance, Cammalleri took multiple whacks at New York Islanders forward Nino Niederreiter in retaliation for what he felt was a dirty hit.
That is also where Kessel seems to have crossed the line. The first slash could be chalked up to self-defence but the subsequent one probably won’t be.
Strangely, Scott claimed on Monday that he was simply doing his job by going after Kessel following a one-sided fight loss by teammate Corey Tropp to Jamie Devane. If that’s the case, the job description of an enforcer has clearly changed. Scott pointed the finger at Leafs coach Randy Carlyle for putting his star player in a dangerous spot.
“I would’ve went after whoever they put next to me, so I don’t know what their coach had in mind,” he said. “I wasn’t going to try to hurt him. I was just trying to send a message.”
Kessel felt like he was doing the same thing. He claimed that the Sabres behemoth threatened to jump him and acted accordingly given the size difference between them.
“It was pretty stupid, right?” said Kessel. “What are you going to do? He’s a big boy so if he’s coming after me, what are you going to do?”
What Shanahan must weigh is the degree to which each man broke the law. Scott only violated the game’s unwritten code by trying to drop the gloves with a talented player – and likely won’t be disciplined as a result – while Kessel acted in a way that is not condoned in the rulebook.
The Leafs have three exhibition games remaining before the regular season opener in Montreal on Oct. 1 and would be hard-pressed to fill Kessel’s skates if he gets banned for a meaningful game or two.
That shouldn’t happen, not after what happened on Sunday night. For all of the talk the brawl has generated around the hockey world, everyone but Clarkson emerged from it relatively unscathed.
“Obviously, Phil’s OK,” said Scott. “He probably came out the better end of it. I’m bruised all over my legs.”