TORONTO – Watching from high above the ice, Mark Fraser knew almost immediately that David Clarkson was in trouble.
When he and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates saw Clarkson jump over the bench on Sunday to join the brawl with the Buffalo Sabres, Fraser figured a suspension was coming. The NHL gave Clarkson an automatic 10-game suspension, just as everyone expected.
“It’s just one of the rules,” Fraser said. “It’s just an unfortunate circumstance, but we’ll all take the reality of it for what it is.”
The reality is that the Leafs now face major roster questions at the start of the regular season. They’ll have to find a way to replace Clarkson in the lineup Oct. 1 at Montreal without the aid of extra cap space because his $5.25-million hit will continue to count for the length of the suspension.
The Leafs caught a break that forward Phil Kessel was suspended only the rest of the pre-season and no regular-season games for his slashes on Sabres enforcer John Scott. Had the cap-strapped Leafs been forced to find a replacement for Kessel as well, things could have gotten dicey.
“It’s always tough when you get players and you’re missing players because you have to juggle your lineup and your preparation for the opening game in Montreal,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “But he’s not going to be able to play anymore, so now he’s going to really practice hard. So that’s an advantage.”
Injuries to Frazer McLaren (broken finger), Colton Orr (leg bone bruise) and Dave Bolland (groin) already complicate the situation, even though Carlyle expects Bolland to play again during the pre-season.
Even assuming Bolland is ready for the season opener, Clarkson’s suspension opens up a spot for someone like Trevor Smith, Troy Bodie or Carter Ashton.
“When somebody’s out of the lineup, there’s an opportunity for somebody else to fill that spot,” Carlyle said. “We have young kids that have had (an) extended number of games in the exhibition schedule here, and we’re going to continue to take a look at them.”
With Clarkson out, Carlyle acknowledged that the Leafs have a “shortage” of right-wingers. He pointed to players like Josh Leivo and Jamie Devane as possibilities, adding that he hadn’t asked Mason Raymond about playing the right side.
Raymond, who signed a US$1-million, one-year deal Monday after he went to camp on a professional tryout, said he played all three forward positions at times while with the Vancouver Canucks. The speedy winger’s versatility could prove valuable to the Leafs in the first month of the season.
“There’s advantages and disadvantages, I think, to both sides,” Raymond said. “I don’t think it’s too much to adjust to. It’s a lot of communication between your teammates and yourself in your end on who’s the first guy back. But I wouldn’t see that being a problem.”
It would be a bigger problem if the Leafs are pressed into a situation that includes two or three AHL-level players in the opening-night lineup. But they could be facing just that after Sunday night’s brawl.
Teammates refused to blame Clarkson for leaving the bench to come to the aid of Kessel, who was being challenged by the six-foot-eight Scott.
“It’s everyone’s initial reaction to get out there and help a teammate, especially a player like Phil, who I don’t know if he’s ever been in a fight in the NHL,” winger Joffrey Lupul said. “But it’s also our jobs to try and win on Oct. 1 here, so we can’t have a bunch of guys getting lengthy suspensions.”
Clarkson said after Tuesday night’s pre-season game that he would not be appealing the suspension and apologized for not addressing the media since the incident because he wanted to wait to hear the news and didn’t want to be a game-day distraction.
“I’m a grown man and I’m going to take this one for what I did and be held accountable,” Clarkson said. “And I’ll say sorry to the fans or anybody who’s disappointed, but I was going out there and what I felt like (was) my teammates in here are first to me. That’s what’s gotten me to where I am in my career, that’s why I believe I’m here.”
Fraser defended his teammate based on the notion that he did it “in his best intentions to serve the team.”
“I guess you would liken it to the schoolyard if somebody’s picking on your brother. In your family, you fight me, you fight your family,” Carlyle said. “It’s one of the situations where you’re going to defend your teammate. David Clarkson understands that what he did and the timing of it was wrong, and that we’re held accountable to that and maybe a better decision would’ve been best applied. But it’s happened, now we live on.”
Kessel’s situation wasn’t as black and white.
After Toronto’s Jamie Devane beat up smaller Sabres winger Corey Tropp, Scott dropped the gloves to fight Kessel on the ensuing faceoff. Kessel slashed Scott in the lower leg before other players moved in.
Naturally, the Leafs saw Scott as the agitator.
“You don’t expect one of the top-five toughest guys, biggest guys, in the NHL to do something like that,” Lupul said. “I’ve never seen that in all the years I’ve played. It’s pretty embarrassing for him.”
Embarrassing, perhaps, based on hockey’s so-called fighters’ code. But Scott didn’t do anything to warrant supplemental discipline.
Sabres coach Ron Rolston was fined an undisclosed amount for “player selection and team conduct” leading to the brawl.
Clarkson’s punishment was more severe, as he won’t be able to make his Leafs debut until Oct. 25. But that didn’t earn him any scorn in his own locker-room.
“Clarkie’s a player’s player, he’s a heart and soul guy,” goaltender James Reimer said. “What he did, the bare bones of it is he stuck up for his teammate. He saw someone who’s 100 pounds heavier and a foot taller than arguably our most skilled player and his natural instinct was to protect him. That’s the kind of guy I want on my team, that’s a guy I want on the ice.”