Johnston: Leafs brawl will affect the bottom line

Toronto Maple Leafs David Clarkson (71) looks up in the middle of a battle with the Buffalo Sabres. (CP/Frank Gunn)

The mayhem on the ice at Air Canada Centre during Toronto’s 5-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday night pales in comparison to the resulting chaos it will have on the Maple Leafs salary cap situation.

By jumping off the bench to defend his new team and its star, Phil Kessel, David Clarkson earned himself an automatic 10-game suspension – a ruling the NHL will almost certainly hand down once it has fully reviewed video of the incident on Monday – and made the job of general manager Dave Nonis much more difficult with only a week to go before opening night.

For starters, the Leafs will be forced to hang on to at least one extra forward out of training camp while also remaining below the $64.3-million cap ceiling. And if Kessel – who received a match penalty for swinging his stick at Sabres behemoth John Scott after the melee kicked off – is also suspended, they will probably need two extra bodies.

Therein lies the problem.

The cap hits of suspended players remain on a team’s books, so the fill-ins will likely come from the lower range of Toronto’s payroll. Carter Ashton ($1.04 million) and Joe Colborne ($600,000) are obvious choices – both played well Sunday before all hell broke loose – while Trevor Smith ($550,000) and Troy Bodie ($600,000) could also be called on.

A Clarkson suspension could also impact Mason Raymond and Cody Franson, who are both currently without contracts. Raymond, a speedy winger, looked like a good bet to turn his tryout into a one-year deal with the Leafs.

Franson has been sitting out in a bid to get more money from the team in negotiations and that won’t be happening for the defenceman in the near future. Raymond will have to sign at a bargain price, while adding Franson will be less of a priority with cap space so scarce.

Determining exactly how much room the Leafs have on their payroll is impossible to do. It will depend on the status of tough guys Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, neither of whom have played yet during the exhibition schedule, as well as which fringe players are kept and the length of Kessel’s punishment. Match penalties carry an automatic suspension and require a ruling from commissioner Gary Bettman.

Toronto probably won’t be able to carry more than one extra player when it goes on the road to open the season in Montreal on Oct. 1. Nonis and assistant GM Claude Loiselle, who manages the team’s cap, will also be forced to do some creative roster juggling before then. The quality of the lineup on the ice will suffer but the Leafs seemed almost resigned to it after the game.

“This is another hand that you’re dealt and it’s adversity that comes your way,” said coach Randy Carlyle. “David Clarkson made a mistake and now we pay for it.”

Toronto’s prized free-agent signing leapt off the bench as soon as he saw Scott drop his gloves to go after Kessel during a third period faceoff – a clear violation of rule 70.1. Clarkson won’t even be able to provide a defence, such as the fact Scott had an eight-inch and 68-pound advantage on Kessel, because the 10-game ban is automatic for joining an altercation in that manner.

Despite the series of ejections, there was a feeling resembling giddiness in Toronto’s dressing room after a line brawl that included new goaltender Jonathan Bernier trading punches with counterpart Ryan Miller. The Leafs were proud of the way they defended one another against a division rival they will see on five more occasions in the regular season, starting with a home-and-home series Nov. 15 and Nov. 16.

However, any excitement will dissipate once reality sets in and league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan starts handing out sentences. The fact Toronto must go more than three weeks without Clarkson will certainly hurt. The team’s 11th game won’t come until Oct. 25 in Columbus.

“That’s a big loss,” Kessel said.

Even though the Leafs were correct in pointing the finger at Scott for triggering the mayhem, they can’t claim innocence on the topic. Remember, they totaled 10 more fighting majors than any other NHL team last season.

Those who live by the sword must also die by the sword, and the ramifications from Sunday’s incident will be felt around Toronto for some time.

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