Grange: Carlyle’s Leafs won’t stop fighting

Buffalo Sabres' Brian Flynn fights Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel during third period of a pre-season hockey game. (CP/Frank Gunn)

If Randy Carlyle is going to coach your hockey team, there will be fights. Lots of them — at least by modern NHL standards. It’s just the way it’s going to be. As long you understand that, then the bizarre and possibly season-defining visit the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres took to 1974 on Sunday night isn’t all that hard to explain.

Oh, in the abstract, it sure seems weird and — let’s face it — a guilty pleasure. Phil Kessel’s explanation of why he turned into a stick-swinging, mean-mugging, post-modern version of Bobby Clarke against Sabres tough guy John Scott is a pretty compelling defence of his self-defence — and a masterwork of understatement.

“It was pretty stupid, right? He said he was going to jump me,” said Kessel after the game. “So I just backed up, you know? What are you going to do, you know? He’s a big boy.”

The idea of facing Scott — a six-foot-eight, 270-pound man-mountain with one career goal and no apparent qualms about picking on goal-scoring pacifists (“I was going to fight whoever was out there,” he told reporters in Buffalo Monday) — makes Kessel’s axe-chopping retreat seem perfectly reasonable.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

That was the take from Carlyle as the dust was settling Monday on a seemingly out-of-nowhere line brawl that caused the Leafs to lose top free-agent signing David Clarkson for 10 games due to suspension for leaving the bench during the fight and may cost them Kessel for a game or two depending on how the league views his tactics against Scott.

There was little to be taken from it because it was a one-off — a throwback.

“The game, at times, can be a violent game. It’s a game that’s supposed to be physical and if you are physical usually you have to respond in your honour at some point — that’s part of the code,” said Carlyle. “What happened last night is not part of that.”

But it was only an outlier because the script got flipped — in no part of hockey’s so-called tough-guy code does the tough guy start a fight with Phil Kessel — and because the Leafs’ Clarkson felt that being seen to step up for his teammates was worth leaving the bench and earning the automatic suspension that comes with it. The rest was textbook.

On the Sabres side you had Corey Tropp, a former third-round pick who has long been known for playing with an edge. Trying to make an impression he asked the Leafs’ Jamie Devane to fight.

Devane, 22, is a six-foot-five, 220-pound winger who was a surprise third-round pick by the Leafs’ former general manager Brian Burke in 2009. His willingness to fight was considered an asset.

Devane won decisively over the six-foot-one, 180-pound Tropp. The Buffalo player had to be helped off the ice.

Tropp wanted the fight — “He just asked me,” said Devane — but that didn’t matter to the Sabres, who were apparently upset that Devane would take on a smaller player, and out went Scott, who holds a size advantage over every single player in the NHL not named Zdeno Chara.

The irony.

That Devane was even on the ice, however, reflects the Leafs reality under Carlyle. In his last five years coaching the Anaheim Ducks they were the toughest team in the NHL, at least if you count fighting majors. According to they were eighth in the NHL in fighting in 2005-06 — Carlyle’s first full year as an NHL head coach — and they were first or second every full season after that.

In 2012–13, Carlyle’s first full season in Toronto, the Leafs led the NHL in fights and would be the favourites to defend their crown this season, based on the return of tough guys Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, and the presence of youngsters like Devane in camp.

“Yeah, this team likes to be a tough team, a tough team to play against,” said Devane at practice Monday, likely at the centre of a scrum for the first time in his professional career, which has so far totaled 24 games in the AHL. “I’m definitely not a guy to say ‘no’ to it and with injuries right now, there could be a spot.”

The connection to fighting and winning remains tenuous as best, and more likely non-existent. In the past 10 years the Stanley Cup winner has typically finished about 20th in the league in fighting majors. Take out exceptions like the 2011 Boston Bruins (second) and Carlyle’s 2007 Cup winners in Anaheim and the average for the other Cup winners is 24th.

The Detroit Red Wings have made 22 consecutive playoffs, winning the Cup four times in that stretch, and are nearly always the team with the least fighting majors in the league.

But Carlyle believes what he believes. Among other reasons he’s cited in the past is that having players like Orr and McLaren doing their jobs makes it harder for the rest of the lineup to balk at doing tasks they might not prefer. How can you complain about taking out the trash when your teammate has just returned from the abattoir with blood on his hands?

If, for example, when the Sabres and Leafs play next on Nov. 17 and Orr steps in against the hulking Scott — the NHL’s undisputed and possibly undefeated heavyweight champion — what excuse will Nazem Kadri or Joffrey Lupul have to slack on a backcheck?

As well, fighters are necessary because fights are often the byproduct of the kind of hockey and team culture Carlyle wants on his team.

“If you want teams to be physical you don’t surround yourself with players that are not physical,” said Carlyle “It’s about earning space and courage to go into certain places to make a play … that’s team toughness. Everyone looks at team toughness and describes it as specifically fighting and I don’t think that’s correct. Fighting is part of it, but usually physical confrontation leads to that.”

Where it will lead to with the Leafs remains to be seen, but that’s where Sunday night’s strange brew came from. At its root it started because Carlyle wants guys in his lineup that can do what Devane did to Tropp.

The fallout may be unintended, but it’s not a shock. At the very least it will lead to a diminished roster to start the season, as Clarkson will be suspended for 10 games. Having to carry an extra body in his place will put even more stress on the Leafs’ salary-cap picture and could even preclude them from signing holdout defenceman Cody Franson.

So there’s no doubt the Leafs won’t be the team they could be to start the season. In a highly competitive Atlantic Division a slow start could sink them. Regardless, they will be a team built in their coach’s image, and one way or the other they’ll be fighting for a playoff spot.

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