In understanding John Scott’s brutal run on Loui Eriksson Wednesday night, context is critical.
There was a time when Buffalo did not employ people like Scott—a long time, actually. In the six seasons from 2005-11, the Sabres consistently took fewer fighting majors than almost any other team in the league. Suddenly, in 2011-12, that changed, and it's change that persisted into 2012-13 and continued into 2013-14, where the Sabres have the early-season lead with 11 major penalties.
It is not hard to pinpoint what happened.
When Milan Lucic ran Ryan Miller over in November 2011, he crossed a line. While hockey is a physical game, goalies are supposed to be sacrosanct; despite the rationalizations of some, they do not become fair game just because they leave the crease.
“Sending a message” is an overused cliché in hockey, but many a message was sent both by that hit and in the aftermath.
NHL officialdom sent a message. Lucic was given a two-minute minor for charging on the play, and no supplemental discipline was assessed. Then-Sabres coach Lindy Ruff had no difficulty deciphering what that message was in comments recorded by ESPN’s Joe McDonald:
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It just means that teams will be to able do exactly what Lucic did. Your goaltender can play the puck, we can run him over, we can hurt him and all you get is a two-minute minor penalty. That is essentially what that means - You can concuss the other team's goalkeeper ... it means it's fair game on goaltenders again.
Director of player safety Brendan Shanahan demurred, suggesting the process had worked because Lucic had been forced to explain himself to the league. Ruff, correctly, refused to buy it. “I said what I said, and I'm not going to back down from what I said,” he insisted.
The other key message sent was by the Sabres. They had not been able to exact physical retribution on Lucic, and no fighting major of any kind was assessed in that game. Commentators around the league noticed and crucified Buffalo. At Backhand Shelf, the excellent Justin Bourne came to the logical conclusion:
A lot of people want the “thugs” taken out of the league, but when your starting goalie gets smeared by a tough guy like that, apologizing that your goalie got in the way isn’t the right response. They’re nice to have on occasion.
The Sabres eventually arrived at the same place Bourne had. Paul Gaustad, a defensive forward who can fight, dropped the gloves with Lucic a little over a minute into Buffalo’s next game against Boston, but the seeds had been planted. The Sabres decided to hire John Scott.
More context: Sometimes the ritualistic dropping of gloves fails to slake a team’s thirst for revenge. For example, after Avalanche forward Steve Moore nailed Vancouver star Markus Naslund in 2004, the Canucks wanted retribution. Moore fought Vancouver pest Matt Cooke. But that wasn’t enough, and later in the same game, Todd Bertuzzi's infamous attack on Moore occurred. We could say the rest is history, except that the resulting lawsuit is still dragging through court.
Certainly, most would agree that Bertuzzi crossed the line. But fans frequently call for their players to cross the line. The complaint that the guys who actually do the damage (“the rats,” to use Brian Burke’s favoured term) don’t have to answer to heavyweight enforcers is common, and so alternatives are suggested: typically, either other forms of physical response or the targeting of a star player on the other team.
In the case of Buffalo, more too than just a simple desire for revenge was at play. The Sabres had believed that having an enforcer was unnecessary in the NHL, and in the aftermath of the Miller incident, the league pulled the rug out from under them. They doubtless felt they had to change their reputation for meekness, and thanks to Scott's antics here and in the preseason (where he went after Toronto star Phil Kessel), they have.
Scott’s hit on Loui Eriksson—malicious, targeted, illegal—was also an example of real deterrence at its finest. People use the term “nuclear option” to describe enforcers without really understanding what that means. It means mutually assured destruction; it means "You run our goalie, we run your star harder." Nobody wins. The idea is to make the cost of a dirty hit far too high for the hit to be made.
When old-school types call for players to be allowed to police themselves, this is what they really mean. They may not be aware of it, but this is the cost. John Scott is a policeman of the first order, an NHL heavyweight willing not only to drop the gloves with anyone but also willing to take the next step. It’s what he did (and what he admitted to Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington) when he we attacked Kessel after a one-sided bout between Corey Tropp and Jamie Devane in the preseason, and it’s what he did with the hit on Eriksson.
The irony here is that the protection Buffalo is seeking doesn’t really work. The Boston Bruins—a big, tough team with an enforcer in Shawn Thornton who actually gets ice time—prove it. Thornton and the rest of his teammates were powerless to stop Scott from taking the head off Eriksson, as powerless as they were to stop Matt Cooke from doing the same thing a few years prior to Marc Savard.
The NHL will come down hard on John Scott for what he did, but that decision will not eliminate his ilk from the game. If the league really wants to stop incidents like the one on Wednesday night, it has to do the job the Sabres brought Scott in to do, the job it failed so miserably at when Lucic hit Miller.
The NHL has to police the game, regardless of the name of the player breaking the rules.