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Monday, September 23, 2013
Leafs start season with dose of adversity

By Pierre LeBrun


TORONTO -- Is this the kind of bad omen that sinks a season before the puck is even dropped?

I know that seems overly dramatic, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you think after the Toronto Maple Leafs lost prized free-agent signing David Clarkson to a 10-game suspension for the start of the regular season after the winger inexplicably jumped off the bench to join a preseason fracas Sunday night.

Seeing behemoth tough guy John Scott go after star winger Phil Kessel was just too hard to take for Clarkson, whose heart was in the right place, but his head was not screwed on right at the time, that’s for sure. (Kessel will have a hearing Tuesday afternoon for his retaliatory slashes to Scott.)

Had Clarkson thought of the implications for one second, he surely never would have jumped over the boards.

And it’s going to hurt in more ways than one.

Never mind that the Leafs will be devoid of Clarkson’s top-six presence. The CBA mandates that his salary will still count against the salary cap and he also takes up an active spot on the 23-man roster for those opening 24 days that he’s out, thus throwing a wrench into the team’s plans both on and off the ice.

Yeesh, what a way to start a season.

It makes you think back to two years ago when James Wisniewski was the big offseason signing in Columbus, but he got slapped with an eight-game suspension for a preseason incident. By the time he returned to play his first game as a Blue Jacket, the team had started 0-7-1 and the season was basically over.

Now, we’re not pretending this year’s Leafs team is comparable to that Jackets team from two years ago. This Toronto team is more advanced in its program. There’s more depth here to overcome this type of situation. But making the playoffs for the Leafs got tougher this season with Detroit sliding East into their division, a very good Ottawa team getting healthy and the Bruins being the perennial powerhouse they are. On paper, it sets up as a fourth-place fight with Montreal or Tampa.

So the wiggle room wasn’t terribly wide open to begin with for a Leafs team that had a solid offseason and shows promise that, in the long term, it is seemingly turning a corner.

For this season though, you just wonder what kind of effect these kinds of things can have on a team. Like that feeling that your season was cursed before it even began.

"It gives another guy an opportunity," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Monday after an incredibly well-attended practice by local media.

That guy, I figure, could be forward Joe Colborne, whose $600,000 salary fits in nice and tightly with a cap situation now suddenly in peril.

Regardless what player now makes the roster with Clarkson out until Oct. 25, the cap will be the biggest factor in said player’s inclusion.

"The cap is always an issue, it’s a cloud hanging out there," Carlyle said. "Sometimes the sky clears and you can see the sun, and sometimes it clouds the issue. And where we’re at with the cap situation, we’re still not over the cap, it’s awfully tight and it's close, we know that. It just makes other situations more difficult to complete."

The Leafs still were able to sign camp invitee Mason Raymond to a one-year contract on Monday. The same can’t be said for unsigned RFA blueliner Cody Franson, who now likely has to wait until after Clarkson’s suspension is over in late October for the Leafs to have the cap room to re-sign him unless Toronto creates more cap room with an NHL trade. Leafs brass will obviously look at all their options.

It just isn’t the script the Leafs had in mind nearly two weeks ago when camp opened.

"You have to adjust on the fly," Carlyle said. "You have to have Plan A, B, C and D in the drawer. I guess we’re at Plan B and C right now."

What you wonder now, looking back, if you’re Toronto, is what could have been done to avoid all this in a meaningless preseason game? Should Carlyle have put 6-foot-5 Troy Bodie on the ice instead of his star winger in Kessel when the Sabres sent out Scott following a scary fight between Buffalo’s Corey Tropp and Toronto’s Jamie Devane, which resulted in Tropp’s helmetless head hitting the ice?

You know why Scott was sent on the ice for the ensuing faceoff.

But by putting Kessel on, Carlyle figured that would help calm things down, I mean, tough guys don’t jump star players, right?

"I never believed in my wildest dreams that the attack would come at that type of player from the opposition, but I was wrong," Carlyle said Monday.

And unfortunately for Carlyle, it also meant Clarkson snapping.

"I think he felt there was an advantage being taken by their player, it was poor judgment, and he did what he did," the Leafs coach said of Clarkson. "There’s no way to defend it. You just accept what went on and move forward."

Adversity arrives at different times of the season for all 30 teams. The Maple Leafs get their serving of it right off the hop.