It’s no secret the role of the enforcer in today’s NHL is diminishing. The numbers say so and the implementation of players by coaches and general managers speak volumes. In fact, most winning coaching philosophies nowadays rely on speed and scoring over bruising your opponent into submission.
So when the Penguins called up Tom Sestito before their game yesterday against the Jets, we all knew something was going to go down. Else, why would they call up someone who has just 16 points but 121 penalty minutes in 33 games at the AHL level?
As for why Sestito was there, just look back to Pittsburgh’s previous game with the Jets for evidence:
- Evgeni Malkin got an elbow up to Blake Wheeler’s head on a hit.
- Dustin Byfuglien concussed Justin Schultz on an unfortunate hockey play.
- Olli Maatta broke his hand after taking an open-ice Adam Lowry check.
Basically, Winnipeg was out for retribution after the NHL’s Department of Player Safety gave no supplemental discipline and the Penguins weren’t pleased at the loss of two key defensemen.
Sestito’s call-up resulted in one staged fight against Chris Thorburn, 62 seconds of ice time, an extremely late hit on Toby Enstrom, 20 minutes of penalty time, and an ejection. As Winnipeg head coach put it so succinctly after the game, the Penguins “didn’t call [Sestito] up to dangle.”
So just how bad was the hit? See for yourself.
Enstrom was rushed off the ice immediately and was taken to the hospital to check for facial fractures. Sestito’s night then ended 13 minutes into a game he was called up for to protect his teammates from Winnipeg funny business. On Thursday, he was given a hearing by the Department of Player Safety.
It’s a hit that Sestito will very likely see time for, and for good reason. It’s a reckless hit and an extremely dangerous play to hit someone in the numbers that far away from the boards. Pretty black and white stuff.
The hit, however, does bring up a very interesting point: would it have happened had the NHL given Malkin the proper supplemental discipline?
Logic says no. Had Malkin been given a few games off, Wheeler likely wouldn’t have felt the need to take matters into his own hands and the Penguins wouldn’t have armed up with Sestito to counter. No Sestito, no hit, no Enstrom in the hospital for facial fractures.
Instead of a defused situation from the outset, Wednesday was a powder keg waiting to happen. And Pittsburgh countered exactly like an NHL team would given the chance, they added an enforcer to make their opponent wary of laying even an innocent hit.
The Penguins could have let Malkin and Wheeler sort their problems out by themselves, no harm done. The addition of Sestito, however, escalated the situation to critical in the name of player protection.
Player protection that, mind you, hospitalized another player.
That’s the rub of the enforcer role. Teams and coaches use enforcers as protection against bad hits and for deterring other teams from running at their stars. So when players like Sestito, or Zac Rinaldo, or Matt Hendricks take matters into their own hands and go on the offensive, they fulfill the role they were put on the ice to defend.
And the NHL isn’t without blame here either. Especially in the Sestito situation. Many have cried out to the Department of Player Safety for more consistency in their rulings. Numerous questionable hits have fallen by the wayside over the last few years that have gone undisciplined.
Had Malkin been given his due, the Department of Player Safety would have satisfied the Jets and the Penguins would have kept Sestito in the minors. Instead, they’ll be dealing with yet another hit that they so want out of the game and they’re back at square one.
Plays like the one Sestito made are hits the NHL has been adamant about removing from the game. Suspensions can only do so much, and it might be time for the league to start punishing teams that play repeat offenders in an attempt to curb those dangerous plays. Otherwise, there might not be an end to this circle of violence the NHL seems to be trapped in.