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Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs pile-up during third period NHL action in Toronto, Sunday Sept. 22, 2013. David Clarkson (71) is at right. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs pile-up during third period NHL action in Toronto, Sunday Sept. 22, 2013. David Clarkson (71) is at right. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mirtle: Leafs’ goon culture comes back to bite them Add to ...

It was October of 2011, and tensions in hockey’s tough guy community were running high.

Three members of their fraternity – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – had passed away at a young age in relatively quick succession, and the subsequent attempts in the media to make sense of and connect their unrelated deaths led to a high profile spat between Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry and a group of former fighters he had called out as “a bunch of pukes.”

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Clarifying his thoughts in a subsequent Coach’s Corner appearance, Cherry added the term “mad dog” to the sport’s already lengthy list of fighter-related terminology.

“It’s a tough sport, like I said, but I would not have a mad dog sitting on the bench only to get on [the ice] for two minutes,” Cherry bellowed. “You should never, ever have a guy sit. I had four 20-goal scorers who were my tough guys, and that’s the way you do it.”

It’s rarely the way it’s done in today’s NHL, however.

And the end result of having a few mad dogs around is what happened between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres in their preseason dust up on Sunday night.

One designated fighter (Jamie Devane) knocked out a relative non-fighter (Corey Tropp), who appeared to be a willing combatant with the much bigger man.

The super goon™ (John Scott) was then called into action to retaliate and went after a skilled player (Phil Kessel).

A melee ensued, equipment was tossed on the ice and debates raged into the next day over who exactly had broken “the code” to cause such a fracas.

“It was pretty stupid, right?” Kessel said of 6-foot-8, 270-pound behemoth Scott going after him, the start of a sequence that led to a 10-game suspension to teammate David Clarkson for leaving the bench to intervene.

“I knew I had to have a response for what happened the shift before,” Scott explained in the typical rationale, “and I said, ‘Phil, we’re going to have to go here, just to let you know.’”

“I never believed in my wildest dreams that the attack would come directed at that type of player,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “But I was wrong.”

The presence of this type of goon is a relatively new phenomenon in the game, one that actually came about after Don Cherry had checked out of coaching and retired to the broadcast booth.

There have been 252 seasons in NHL history where a forward has had 100 penalty minutes while failing to record more than five points – all by heavyweights with a limited skill set beyond punching opponents – and 247 of those were after 1985.

The usage of a fighter along those lines actually appeared to peak sometime between 1995 and 2005, with a high of roughly 20 players filling the John Scott role back in 1997-98.

The rise (and fall) of the goon

 

The prevalence of players whose only purpose is to fight is a relatively recent phenomenon in the NHL, one that peaked in the late 1990s but which still exists today. This chart shows the number of forwards that had 100 PIMs but five points or less in that season.

Since then, the super goons have fallen out of favour in many organizations, with many GMs opting for skill over brawn as both the speed of the game and parity in the league have increased.

But the Leafs are trending in the other direction.

After leading the league in fighting majors a year ago with 44 – 10 more than the next highest team, the Columbus Blue Jackets – Toronto is tied for that honour again in preseason with 12 fights in five games.

(What makes that all the more impressive is the fact the Leafs main fighters, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, are both out with injuries.)

Carlyle, in fact, has no fewer than seven players among the 31 in camp who don’t mind dropping the gloves, something his teams have become well known for and which has caused a type of goon arms race in their division.

Montreal bulked up with George Parros and Brandon Prust.

Ottawa added a heavy in Matt Kassian.

The Sabres, meanwhile, may be in for a tough season as they rebuild, but they won’t ever go meekly given they boast one of the “bigger” threats in Scott and others like Steve Ott and Cody McCormick.

But the problem for the Leafs in all this is that having so much of their identity tied to this type of player can come with some fallout.

For one, Toronto’s fourth line struggled a year ago, was played sparingly and left the tough minutes for their teammates, something that hurt even more if injuries hit during games.

For another, the culture of always being ready for a fight – originally instilled by former GM Brian Burke – can lead to rash actions like Clarkson’s, especially considering he wasn’t the only Leaf attempting to hop the bench despite the automatic 10-game suspension for doing so.

“I was kind of being held back,” said Nazem Kadri, one of the Leafs smaller, finesse types. “Lupes [teammate Joffrey Lupul] did a good job of keeping me on the bench. But we did have to think it through.”

“When the flames get that high, you’re somewhat helpless other than pulling people back and yelling and screaming ‘get back, get back, don’t get involved,’ ” Carlyle said.

The mess the Leafs find themselves in, in other words, could have been a lot worse. Kadri could have been suspended, or Kessel could have been hurt by Scott, or netminder Jonathan Bernier dinged up in his own unnecessary bout.

But you can also certainly see why some Leafs players are confused as to their roles when these melees start, as fighting is being rewarded constantly in the organization.

How else can one explain that some of this year’s final cuts will be Jamie Devane, Troy Bodie and/or David Broll?

Or that both Orr and McLaren have received multiyear, one-way deals in recent seasons?

Clarkson, meanwhile, has been looking for trouble throughout preseason – including an early bout with a much bigger player in Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Nicklas Grossman – which could be a result of his big new contract and trying to prove his worth.

Fighting has now been equated with winning in Toronto, even if it was the Leafs skill that gave the Boston Bruins fits during last year’s playoffs far more than their fists.

“The game is physical game and if you want to people to be physical you don’t surround yourself with players that are not physical,” Carlyle said of his philosophy. “If you watch the games in the playoffs, it’s about earning space and the courage to go in certain areas, take a check to make the play.

“Toughness is… just as important for us from a standpoint of body checks and blocked shots. That’s team toughness. Everybody 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.”

That wasn’t really the case on Sunday. Fighting was the it – the cause of all hell breaking loose on the ice. For all the blame thrown around in the aftermath, the real danger came as a result of the one-dimensional punchers that started it and not a big hit or a blocked shot or anything else.

“The code” wasn’t adhered to – by one side or the other – and with all these mad dogs around, there wasn’t a whole lot of “thinking it through” going on.

Someone or something was bound to get hurt, and, in this case, it just may have been the Leafs playoffs chances.

@mirtle

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