Leafs-Sabres: Moral Code vs Letter Of The Law


The aftermath of Sunday night’s Leafs-Sabres slugfest is still being finalized as I write this, but in the end, there will really be no right or wrong answer no matter what Brendan Shanahan decides Phil Kessel‘s sentence should be.

Sep 22, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak (42) and defenseman T.J. Brennan (25) and forward David Clarkson (71) and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel (5) fight during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Buffalo 5-3. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Its nice to be on the outside of one of these looking in, not having a horse in the race to cloud my judgement.  It is a case of two divisional rivals, who were both in the wrong.

The Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox has been among the most vocal in his insistence that player safety guru Shanahan cannot let the Sabres walk away clean in this incident.

While I understand his sentiment, if you look at the sum of the parts instead of the whole, there isn’t much grey area. The Sabres might have started the fracas, but there isn’t much you could point at and state that it is a suspendable  offense under the current rules of the NHL.

1.  The initial hit on Marcus Foligno – From what I have seen and heard, the hit wasn’t by any means predatory, illegal beyond maybe a boarding penalty, or vicious by any means. It was a player taking a bad fall into the boards with an unfortunate ending for Foligno.  This his preciptated the next step, which precipitated the mayhem that ensued.

2. The Corey Tropp – Jamie Devane fight – While Tropp ended up on the losing end, and badly, the little Buffalo player instigated the scrap.  Whether he was told to or not by anyone, he bit off more than he can chew in the much bigger Devane.  Devane had no choice but to accept the fight in that situation no matter who he was provoked by, or he might as well pack his bags for the East Coast League.  Give Tropp credit for the effort and trying to stand up for his fallen teammate, but the result was predictable and unfortunate. Again, that is on the Sabres player, not the Leafs one for being bigger and stronger and tougher.

3.  Rolston Sends John Scott to Fight – The message was clear.  Whoever was out there (the Leafs had last change, so Rolston couldn’t have known who Scott was lining up against.  But the message is not something that hasn’t been sent out a thousand times before by a thousand coaches in many leagues. The tough guy, like him or not, respect him or not, has a job to do.  And to this date, that is not contrary to the rules.  Rolston being upset because his player, who I would consider the agressor in the bout, got his clock cleaned is on him and the Sabres, not on the Leafs.

4. Randy Carlyle sends the Kessel Line Out – The Leaf bench boss, depending on your point of view of  the situation, either made an aggregious error in sending the line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and Carter Ashton out or, because he didn’t have an answer for Scott on the bench, assumed that the Sabres enforcer would respect the “code” and not go after one of the Leafs’ skilled players.  Its not the same situation, but similar to what I complained about Carlyle doing to Ottawa last spring.  I would be hypocritcal for me to bash Carlyle for doing what he did in this circumstance.

5.  Scott Gives Kessel the “heads up” – Scott warned Kessel what was coming.  Whether or not Player 81 took that threat seriously or not, Kessel should have no expectation to defend himself in such a manner against a player of Scott’s stature.

6.  Puck Drops, Gloves Drop – The “code” is not something that is written in the rule book. It is a game played by professional hockey players and there should be no distinction in how players are treated in making calls, so like it or not, Scott has the right (under the current rules) to instigate a fight, whether the opponent is a willing combatant or not.

7.  Clarkson joins the Fray – This is cut and dried.  David Clarkson left the bench to join the altercation, and that’s an automatic 10 games.

8.  Kessel Swings His Stick Not Once, But Twice – Whether or not he connected, and whether or not it was in self-defense (the first one, not the second), brandishing your stick in such a manner as a weapon is definitely contravening the rules and could be (and was) construed as an attempt to injure.  The match penalty usually carries an automatic suspension of a couple of games.

Letting Kessel walk on the lumberjack stick swinging, as Cox suggests would be “justice”, opens another can of worms where any player who feels threatened can take matters into their own hands.  Maybe the next one doesn’t swing for the legs, but the head.   What happens then?

Like it or not, fighting is a part of the game, and the “code” of enforcers is not written into the rule book.   An instigator penalty, whether it is starting a fight with Colton Orr or Phil Kessel, is still 2 minutes plus 10.  As of now, however ridiculous it sounds in the real world, punching someone of any size with your fist is not considered an attempt to injure in the NHL.

So, while it may have been a disgusting ploy on the part of the Sabres (for which coach Rolston has since been fined for “player selection”, and that is another story), nothing they did was suspendable under the rules of the game.  The Leafs suspension of Clarkson is black and white, and the anticipated suspension to Kessel (which hasn’t yet been determined as of the writing of this article  UPDATE:  Kessel received a 3  preseason game suspension), is warranted because of the flagrant use of a weapon in his hands.

Both parties contravened certain values, but while the Sabres arguably violated moral values and “the code” of the game, the Leafs violated the letter of the law, and are will suffer the consequences for the next month or so.