A sleepy preseason game with the Buffalo Sabres descended into silliness Sunday night but the bottom line for the Toronto Maple Leafs is anything but funny.
The Leafs are now looking at starting the NHL’s regular season without winger David Clarkson for the first 10 games. He will almost certainly be suspended by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan for coming off the players’ bench to join a third-period brawl that was touched off when Sabres fighter John Scott went after Leafs star Phil Kessel.
NHL rules call for an automatic 10-game suspension for any player who leaves the bench or the penalty box to join an altercation on the ice. Those are regular-season games. Shanahan has already issued one 10-gamer this month to Paul Bissonette of the Phoenix Coyotes and Clarkson’s transgression was just as clear.
“We’re not proud or happy of what went on,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. “I think David Clarkson made a mistake. And now we have to pay for it.”
Pay is literal here, since the suspension means Clarkson will forfeit about $500,000 in salary from that rich free-agent contract the Leafs gave him this summer to bring his combination of scoring and grit to the team. This will also cause salary-cap problems for Leafs general manager David Nonis, who was already close to the $64.3-million cap with defenceman Cody Franson still unsigned even before Clarkson let his emotions get the better of him.
Clarkson’s $5,250,000 salary will still count against the cap while he is suspended. At the same time, the Leafs have to bring in a replacement and his pay will go on the cap, which will be around $70,000 if the player is earning the league minimum of $600,000 and more if his salary is higher.
That may not sound like much, but according to capgeek.com, the Leafs have only $1,995,833 in cap space left. Franson is holding out for a salary of at least $3-million, which means Nonis has precious little wiggle room.
The silliness included new Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who skated over the Sabres’ blue line to engage Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller in a fight. He won the slow-motion scrap, which cemented his place in the hearts of the Leafs fans at the Air Canada Centre, who were chanting Bernier’s name after he was ejected from the game.
Normally, coaches warn their players not to leave the bench when a brawl involving multiple players starts. However, Carlyle said he and everyone else on the Leafs bench was distracted by the nearby presence of Scott following his threat to Kessel.
“I didn’t realize [Clarkson] left the bench until I saw the video,” Carlyle said.
The Leafs refused to make Clarkson available for interviews after the game. Scott also did not appear for post-game interviews
Kessel said Scott “said he was going to jump me,” after the faceoff. Kessel backed up, then responded with a couple of two-handed slashes on Scott, who makes his living as a fighter and has a tremendous size advantage on the Leaf star at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds. Kessel is 6-feet, 202 pounds.
“It was pretty stupid, right?” Kessel said. “I just backed up. He’s a big boy, so if he’s coming after me what am I going to do?”
As for his slashing on Scott, which may draw a suspension for a preseason game from Shanahan, Kessel said, “I don’t have any comment on that.”
The trouble started midway through the third period when Leafs forward Jamie Devane, 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, badly beat Sabres forward Corey Tropp, 6-feet and 183 pounds. The smaller Sabres player, who had just scored a goal, was left shaken and had to be helped to the dressing room.
Sabres head coach Ron Rolston responded by sending Scott out for the ensuing faceoff. Normally, the Leafs are more than willing to handle such situations but enforcers Colton Orr (bone bruise) and Frazer McLaren (broken finger) were not dressed due to injuries.
“[The Sabres] saw the problem as a bigger man fighting a smaller guy,” Carlyle said. “They sent Scott out. I tried to defuse the situation by putting Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and Carter Ashton out. Obviously I was wrong.”
Rolston pleaded ignorance.
“It was off a faceoff,” he said. “I don’t know what happened on the far side. I don’t know. It was a faceoff situation. We had just scored. I’m not sure.”
Bernier’s sortie to engage Miller will ensure one thing: That video clip of former Leafs goaltender Felix Potvin beating up Flyers goalie Ron Hextall 20-odd years ago the Leafs love to show on the video board will be replaced by the Bernier-Miller tango.
“I asked him if he wanted to go,” Bernier said. “I don’t think he actually wanted to go but that’s the way it goes in a hockey game. You get hyper and get energy. I wanted to defend my teammates.”
While Bernier’s belief in the necessity of a well-padded goaltender “defending” his mates by engaging an equally well-upholstered opponent is dubious, he was right about Miller’s enthusiasm for the pantomime sketch.
“I thought he was just doing a little flare-up-for-the-crowd thing. I’m not a fighter. God, I think even Bernier has me in weight,” said Miller, who was flustered enough to forget exactly where he was playing. “Yeah, but you can’t pass up a fight when you’re in Toronto in Maple Leaf Gardens.
“I mean, you back off from that one, what kind of hockey player are you? So I figured I might as well give it a shot. I thought I did okay. He got loose a little bit on me there, but toward the end [I] kind of got back into it.”
Oh, and if it matters the Leafs won the game 5-3.