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Brawn over brains: David Clarkson's good intentions were a bad idea in Leafs-Sabres brawl

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

You hardly notice him when you watch the replay. The announcers didn’t even notice him.

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David Clarkson's regular season debut with the Maple Leafs will likely be delayed 10 games. (USA Today)

As all hell broke loose in Sunday night’s exhibition between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, as big bad John Scott went after little ol’ Phil Kessel, as Kessel chopped Scott like a lumberjack with an axe, as bodies and gloves and sticks flew all over the place and the crowd cheered, a player entered the top of the screen.

He didn’t do much. He jumped into the pile and wrestled for a second. He jawed at Scott as an official tied him up and everyone basically stood around and the fans chanted “Go Leafs Go!” and the announcer said: “When you take a look at this crowd and you hear somebody say they shouldn’t take fighting out of hockey …”

The player kept jawing at Scott as the goalies got into it and Air Canada Centre kept roaring and the announcers cackled at all the good fun. He jawed at Scott some more as the scrum meandered over to the bench area and the announcer warned: “Oh, be careful from the bench, or you’ll get suspended.”

Too late. David Clarkson had already left the Toronto bench. David Clarkson, the Leafs’ big free-agent acquisition, the guy who signed a seven-year contract – the longest in franchise history – worth $36.75 million, had already earned an automatic 10-game suspension just by stepping into a silly sideshow. He was the player who entered the top of the screen no one noticed.

[Watch: Leafs-Sabres line brawl, goalie fight, David Clarkson leaves bench]

Everyone will notice this: The Leafs will be without Clarkson for one-eighth of the season – and probably without Kessel, their top offensive threat, for a little time, too. They will face added salary-cap problems at a time when they want to sign tryout Mason Raymond and need to sign restricted free agent Cody Franson. And for what? So they could stick up for each other and bond and make a statement and provide some cheap entertainment in a game that didn’t count in the standings? What a waste.

Look, like it or not (and I don’t), fighting still has a place in today’s NHL despite our increased knowledge of the short- and long-term effects of brain trauma. Fans love it. Players accept the risks. Teams build rosters with punch. But this is a perfect example of how things can spiral out of control quickly, why fighting is a particular problem in the preseason and … well, how it’s all fun and games until someone, or some team, gets hurt.

These teams played in the old Northeast Division. Toronto preached truculence when Brian Burke was general manager, then practiced it especially when Randy Carlyle became coach. Buffalo got tougher after Milan Lucic ran goaltender Ryan Miller a couple of years ago and no one responded to the Boston Bruins. So that’s your backdrop, an arms race.

Now add the preseason – a time when established players are supposed to sharpen up, new guys are trying to fit in and others are trying to prove something. We say these are meaningless games, but they aren’t meaningless to guys trying to earn jobs. There are all kinds of fights in preseason games. There are all kinds of fights between potential teammates in training camp scrimmages. Because guys want to get noticed, and because teams still value fighting – or at least the guts it takes to do whatever it takes to make it.

Sunday night’s mayhem started after the Sabres’ Corey Tropp scored a goal. Tropp has played 34 NHL games in his career, all in 2011-12, and is listed on The Hockey News’ depth chart as the Sabres’ fifth left winger – behind Scott, who is known for fighting and not playing actual hockey. Tropp has a concussion history. On the ensuing faceoff, Tropp fought with Jamie Devane, who has not played an NHL game and is not even listed on The Hockey News’ expanded depth chart for the Leafs.

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Phil Kessel hacked away at John Scott, then slugged it out with Brian Flynn. (USA Today)

The Sabres were upset because Tropp is listed at 6-foot, 185 pounds while Devane is 6-5, 217, and Tropp lost the mismatch, falling to the ice, out cold. The Leafs say Tropp started it. Bottom line, Tropp and Devane jostled for position. Both dropped their gloves – two bubble players, at best, trying to prove something in the preseason, Tropp taking a huge risk. Let’s hope he’s OK.

So what did Sabres coach Ron Rolston do? On the next shift he sent out Scott, his 6-foot-8, 270-pound enforcer. In a perfect world, Scott would be using this opportunity to work on his game and show he can play to earn more ice time. This is not a perfect world. Carlyle sent out Kessel, whose only punch is offensive, instead of Clarkson, a power forward. The Leafs coach said he wanted to diffuse the situation. I buy it. Had he sent out Clarkson in response, people would be ripping him for trying to escalate the situation.

Scott went after Kessel, because that’s what he does. Kessel whacked away with his stick, because what would you do? Kessel earned a match penalty for intent to injure, which comes with an automatic suspension and requires a ruling from commissioner Gary Bettman, but it’s hard to blame him. He’s not a fighter. He was under no obligation to fight under any code. Yeah, he could have skated away – after all, his greatest asset is speed – or turtled. But when you’ve got a huge dude coming at you, you defend yourself as best you can.

[Related: Leafs-Sabres brawl FAQs]

Clarkson had no excuse. Everyone knows the rule. You can’t leave the bench. If you do, it’s 10 games. But here’s a hometown Toronto guy who has just joined the Leafs and has been compared to Wendel Clark and Darcy Tucker, a character guy who wants to stick up for his teammates and be a leader and live up to his contract, a well-meaning guy who got carried away in the heat of the moment.

He accomplished virtually nothing, except developing chemistry with his new teammates – with whom he won’t be able to debut until Oct. 25, when the Leafs finally play their 11th game, at the Columbus Blue Jackets. Not a bad outcome for the Sabres, who hurt the playoff chances of a rival in the new Atlantic Division.

But hey, the goalies fought, and that’s always fun, and the fans got some bang for their buck, and the announcers got a chuckle, all because fighting is part of the game and some guys had something to prove and testosterone is hard to stop. Brawn over brains.

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