Isn’t this what the Leafs wanted?

Phil Kessel tough

Exactly what, apart from what he ended up doing, was Phil Kessel supposed to do in that situation? The whole world is having a good ol’ laugh at Kessel this week after he took a two-hander at John Scott’s ankle. Kessel’s options at the time were threefold:

  1. Fight John Scott and have the Christ beaten out of him.
  2. Skate away from Scott as fast as possible and bear the brunt of the next several decades of laughs that would come his way.
  3. Try to keep Scott away from him long enough for someone to intercede on his behalf, perhaps by wielding his stick like a hatchet.

He obviously chose the third and final of these choices and it proved the most judicious. The time on the IR with a concussion that came with No. 1 was always a non-starter, and the scorn from No. 2 likewise was never an option. And now hockey pundits in every major market, most of all those with reason to dislike Kessel (Boston) or the Leafs (Montreal), laughs at Kessel. The Toronto media, for their part, defended their boy and team as well they should have: The kinds of tactics the Sabres employed in that game, following Corey Tropp asking Jamie Devane to fight following a goal. Devane, an aspiring NHLer with naught but 36 pro games (and 90 PIM in them) to his credit obliged. By KOing Tropp. And, in doing so, allowing the player five inches shorter and 40ish pounds slighter than himself to bounce his head scarily off the ice.

In turn, Sabres coach Ron Rolston put out John Scott and an assortment of other non-skill players. Randy Carlyle, given that he had last change a total lack of things happening in his brain, put out his top line, which included Kessel. Thus began the chaos of a line brawl, David Clarkson leaving the bench, and a goalie fight.

But let’s not forget where all this started: It started when the Leafs themselves started loading up on brainless goons, as a means of becoming “harder to play against.” That the Leafs had none of them (save for Devane) in the lineup mattered not at all; if you’re playing Toronto, you prepare as though you’re going to have to fist-fight some people. Thus the inclusion of Scott in the lineup.

Is this not what the Leafs asked for? Is this not the kind of hockey they’ve implicitly condoned through their roster construction in the last few years? Is what the Sabres did to them on Sunday really so much different from when they danced in the streets and laughed themselves silly over when they played Montreal in early February, and guys like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, with the combined hockey skill of a small child, whaled on Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges? It’s not unlike the National Rifle Association’s ideas about how to prevent mass shootings, but leaving aside good and bad, for every “guy with a gun” on the Leafs roster, there’s someone with one on the Sabres’. The lines of who’s good and who’s bad depends entirely on which bench you happen to be sitting on, and if you’re not on a bench at all, the only bad guys are the ones whose jobs are solely to punch people repeatedly.

It’s not so funny when some brainless thug tries to pummel your own team’s best player into a gooey red puddle, but I guess that’s not a moral anyone outside Toronto this week really needs to be told.

But do you know what’s really funny about all this? The team responsible wasn’t even in the building. The Sabres beefing up was of course a result of the time Milan Lucic ran through Ryan Miller at a thousand miles an hour and concussed him except not really, and no one on the Sabres made a big deal out of it during the game, let alone trying to punch him; this only served to encourage Buffalo, and to a lesser extent the Leafs, to go shopping for toughness and make it a bigger part of the gameplan. Montreal tried to do the same thing, as did Ottawa. This is the kind of incident you didn’t even need a telescope to see coming: Skill guy gets knocked out by thug. Knocked-out guy’s thug teammate goes after thug’s skill teammate. The whole thing devolves, the Leafs definitely lose their prized free agent signing for one-eighth of the season, and the incident leads to lots of tongue-clucking from people in all corners of the sport about What It All Means.

What it all means, of course, is that if neither team felt the need to carry players like this because hey look they don’t actually deter anyone from anything at all ever none of this would have happened and the Leafs would have simply beaten the hell out of Buffalo in a preseason game no one even thought about again. It’s a little early in the season to be having existential crises about the sport because of something John Scott did. Or at least, I would have thought so.