Getty ImagesIt wasn't so long ago that a guy like John Scott was being prized by important teams with playoff or even Stanley Cup aspirations as a guy who could make a difference for them. He got into playoff games with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the New York Rangers actually traded for him for the stretch run in 2012.
His role in inciting that huge brawl in that preseason game between the Maple Leafs and Sabres, just be his mere presence, might soon change all that. On Tuesday, the league handed down an allegedly major fine — $10,000, or 1/75th of Scott's take-home pay this season — to Buffalo coach Ron Rolston for simply having Scott on the ice at that time, despite the fact that the guy had been out there taking a regular shift just four seconds earlier when Corey Tropp got in a fight with Jamie Devane.
Now, you can argue that Devane, at 6-foot-5 and 220-something, probably should have fought Scott and not Tropp, but by all indications the latter was the guy who asked for the scrap, so at that point what is Devane supposed to do? Plenty of blame has, rightly, been heaped on Randy Carlyle for rolling his top line in the aftermath of that incident, because he was at home and had last change and could see that Scott wasn't coming off the ice. In fact, once Phil Kessel and Co. came over the boards, Rolston would not have been able to make such a change (of course, he also knew exactly what was going to happen next). Meanwhile, Carlyle's miscalcuation in his attempt to calm things down shows the kind of brilliant tactician he isn't.
So the league, essentially, fined Rolston for having someone who wasn't Scott fight when Scott was on the ice opposite another team's heavyweight, and then leaving Scott out there for the next shift even though a 5-foot-9 guy with a concussion history had just done his job for him. And by the way, a situation in which two gigantic knuckle-draggers who can't play being on the ice at the same time and one of them being asked to go by a player eight inches and 40 pounds lighter than him is a thing that will never, ever, ever happen again.
This fine, of course, is an absurd thing for the league to have handed out, because there certainly isn't anything in the damn rule book about "player selection," not in the last 10 minutes of the game, not in the first 10, and not anywhere in between. This is in fact something teams like the Sabres and Maple Leafs and Bruins and Flames and others who employ guys strictly for the purpose of face-punching did last season and indeed since the dawn of that role. It's an interesting move to start throwing around fines for it now, that's for sure.
Obviously, as everyone has pointed out, the Leafs are as complicit as anyone in the tactical arms race in the Northeast Division that has flourished in the past few years, and this fine could have just as easily gone their way if Carlyle rolled Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren opposite Thomas Vanek had the situations been reversed. Only the people on the far lefthand side of the bell curve of NHL fan intelligence would at this point argue in favor of keeping guys like Scott and Orr and McLaren in the sport, and generally (but not always) teams that dress them regularly do get punished because they tend to not be all that good at hockey when those guys are on the ice. That, in turn, translates into losses. That certain NHL front offices haven't figured that out yet — and Toronto took its improbable playoff appearance and near-success in Game 7 as the ultimate validation of its roster-building ethos — means they will only continue punishing themselves for some time more.
The thing with this fine by the league is that this is just another case of the league making up the rules as it goes along. That's something about which teams in general have pretty good reason to be upset; just like they made up cap recapture penalties to punish bad actors under the old CBA, this latest rule sets a curious precedent that executives and coaches had no reason to have seen coming. However, unlike cap recapture, the practical upshot of this decision is ultimately a good one.
At the same time though, the relative slap on the wrist to Kessel for taking not one but two baseball swings at Scott's ankle (three preseason games, to which Kessel likely said, "Thanks for the time off!" and put his sunglasses on and drove away in a convertible laughing while his jaunty scarf flapped in the wind as if in utter contempt for the NHL's supplementary discipline system), says that star players are free to protect themselves against such attacks. Scott did indeed drop his gloves first, no matter what all his swearing up and down that he was just joking, and if that kinda thing happens to a star player again, the precedent is now, "Swing away." And frankly, it's just as well.
The loss of $10,000 is a drop in the bucket for the Sabres — Terry Pegula doesn't even need to "drill another well" to find that kind of cash lying around his house, he can just check his backup backup pants — and likely won't lead them to dress Scott any less than they were already planning, meaning that they will still only do it very occasionally.
The ability of teams to put no-talent "Supergoons" out on the ice in whatever situation they like, and of those players to threaten actual talented counterparts, should be limited. I don't know if this is the exact way that it should be happening, but the good here outweighs the bad. You may disagree — and if you're a Buffalo fan, you have a good reason to do so — but the ends (protecting All-Stars from guys who if they had even slightly less ability stand up properly on their skates would be carrying pianos up flights of stairs) justify the means (making up nonsense rules and levying major fines based on them out of nowhere).
But if this fine is indeed the first salvo in the NHL's budding war on injurious thugs, with the end goal being to drive them out of the league with pitchforks and torches, then it's a step in the right direction.
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