The NHL came down on Toronto's Phil Kessel on Tuesday, suspending him for the final three preseason games.
If the only knowledge one had of Sunday night’s preseason fracas between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs were news narratives from the subsequent few days, they might think NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan was a bit liberal in flexing his suspension muscles.
Per USA Today's Mike Brehm, Toronto's Phil Kessel is suspended for the rest of the games that don’t count and teammate David Clarkson is excommunicated for the first 10 of the ones that do. One can infer that Shanahan, the former tough guy, was clearly aiming to set a no-nonsense tone for the 2013-14 campaign a full week before it begins.
It's a worthwhile endeavor. And given a chronic perception that the league is little more than wrestling on skates with an occasional goal or two, it might appear what was doled was in line with the message.
But once you go to the videotape, it's clear that Shanahan didn't flex remotely hard enough.
Whether you see fighting as an integral part of the game or exactly what relegates it to second-class mainstream status outside Canada, the footage in the immediate aftermath of the scrap between the Sabres' Corey Tropp and the Maple Leafs' Jamie Devane is evidence of where the ex-ruffian fell short.
Though I’ll concede seeing a frothing behemoth like John Scott in mid-accost might render anyone's fight-or-flight sensors haywire—and I'll allow that Kessel's initial two-hand whack at the big man's left leg might even have adhered to an unwritten code of justice—the actions he took as matters progressed were directly responsible for the escalation from mid-level scrum to full-on donnybrook.
By darting away as Scott's attention was diverted by intervening teammates, then circling back for another two-hander at his defenseless foe's other leg, Kessel quickly crossed the line from bullied victim to cowardly opportunist—just as he had six days earlier against Philadelphia.
Not only did he run the risk of seriously injuring the 6'8" Sabre, which somehow he didn't—a point misguidedly used in his defense during Shanahan's sanctions explanation—but the recklessness of the act put his own teammates in danger in the subsequent mayhem.
And while Clarkson wasn't as directly culpable, his deeds were no more prudent.
In leaving the bench to join in the nonsense, he violated another tenet of the aforementioned unwritten code—which in essence says, "Don't leave the bench, ya knucklehead. You're gonna get suspended."
Meanwhile, as his counterpart in Buffalo is socked in the wallet for putting Scott on the ice in an unstable situation, the motivation for Toronto coach Randy Carlyle placing his top scorer and assist man within grappling distance of an angry giant remains a mystery—one he’s awfully lucky didn't end with the $27 million man taking his meals through a straw.
Were the suspensions to Phil Kessel and David Clarkson on target, too heavy or too lenient?
Instead, all Kessel is forced to suffer is a week's hiatus before opening night while his teammate cools his heels for a month until the Maple Leafs visit Columbus in late October. Both will presumably be around for games No. 19 and 20 on Nov. 15 and 16, when Toronto and Buffalo face off in a home-and-home series that's sure to (Not!) articulate all the sublime beauty of the "coolest game on ice."
Had Shanahan had that beauty in mind when concocting his sanctions, the timeouts he issued would have been closer to real deterrents—let's say, 20 games apiece—than symbolic lip service.