Malkin, Sestito & “The Code”

Fighting in hockey and the enforcer mentality, in general, is a highly debated topic these days. Not only are fanbases split almost directly down the middle, NHL teams are as well. The Pittsburgh Penguins are a great example of a group who left the old school outlook on toughness behind to build a team that could compete in today’s NHL.

At least for the most part.

When the Penguins traveled to Winnipeg on Wednesday night for a bout against the big, physical Jets they surprisingly recalled Tom Sestito just hours before puck drop. Sestito has one role on the ice and it has nothing to do with the scoresheet — unless you’re looking at the penalty minutes column.

That recall sent a message — or a challenge if you will — to Winnipeg. The Penguins essentially dared the Jets to attack. They welcomed the type of hockey that they’ve been so successful in avoiding and essentially abandoned their ‘just play’ mantra. Of course, any opposition to that mindset is viewed as soft, or completely against fighting and physicality but that isn’t always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case. And if you agreed with last night’s lineup decision there’s a very important question you must answer…

Was It Worth It?

Sestito was on the ice for three shifts and tallied a hair over one minute of ice time, according to HockeyStats.Ca. After his fight with Winnipeg tough guy Chris Thorburn and a five-minute major that included a 10-minute misconduct for boarding, he accrued 20 penalty minutes and was ejected from the contest.

Interestingly, after Sestito left the game, the teams began to play actual hockey and the Penguins took over en route to a 7-4 victory.

You read that correctly. Most of the garbage — minus the usual physicality that occurs in every game — pretty much stopped after the Penguins’ enforcer left. Quite the opposite of what’s supposed to happen, right? It was yet another indication that these individuals incite violence, rather than deter it.

Payback was the storyline in the days leading up to this contest. The Jets always play the Penguins physical but this one was supposed to be worse.

When these teams met in mid-February, two Pittsburgh defensemen — Justin Schultz and Olli Maatta — were injured on questionable hits by Dustin Byfuglien and Adam Lowry, respectively. Also, it was expected that Winnipeg would be seeking retribution on Evgeni Malkin for his hit on Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler, in which he left his feet and made contact with the head.

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Just as the “hockey code” requires — whether you like it or not — Malkin answered the bell and dropped the gloves with Wheeler. Malkin stated after the game that he fought Wheeler out of respect, as he knew the hit was high. That should have been the end of it and honestly, it was a necessary scrap.

Stars like Malkin shouldn’t be fighting, but when he originally hit Wheeler he should have been disciplined by the league and wasn’t. Until the league begins actually policing those types of hits, players will feel they need to do it themselves. I don’t have an issue with that and neither should you. It’s on the NHL and the Department of Player Safety to correct that culture.

Ultimately, removing Sestito from this scenario provides a pretty standard hockey game with one fight that was brewing from an incident weeks prior. With Sestito in the lineup, the game turned into a sideshow with Toby Enstrom — innocent of any wrongdoing — in the hospital to get examined for facial fractures after getting boarded. To be blunt, recalling Sestito wasn’t worth it. It was a waste of time and negatively impacted the game, rather than having a positive impact on how the Penguins answered Winnipeg’s physical play.

The Toughness Mentality

Fighting is no longer needed in hockey, but there’s no denying it’s entertainment value. I think most can agree, though, that watching two big guys who otherwise play two shifts per game partake in a staged fight accomplishes nothing.

And, it’s boring.

Somewhere along the line, the enforcer became irrelevant. Unfortunately for those who enjoy that sort of thing, they’re only becoming more and more extinct. Hockey at every level, thankfully, is geared toward skill and as things progress, fighting will become rarer by the season.

Should it be outlawed? Should the game be changed to a point where fighting is illegal and warrants an automatic suspension, just as it does in youth hockey? Maybe. Especially for the sake of all those who have suffered so many concussion issues as a result of that style.

But for now, it’s still a part of the game and will be for the foreseeable future, albeit a small part. Have you ever witnessed a crowd that didn’t get out of their seats and cheer during a scuffle? When a fight occurs in the context of the game and stems from emotion and an intense battle, it’s a highly entertaining piece of this sport. Players and fans both love it. For that reason, it’s likely here to stay in some form. But it’s important that team owners, general managers and anyone else making personnel decisions realize that individuals like Sestito are no longer necessary.

Enforcers aren’t a deterrent, they’re simply a detriment.