I am not a proponent of NHL teams employing enforcers. That era of hockey, thankfully, seems to have passed. Nothing is more time-wasting than a staged fight between opposing tough guys that serves no legit purpose.
But, when the Penguins opened the season against Washington this past Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena, there was a moment that gave me pause.
In the first period, Penguins winger Tom Kuhnhackl bumped Capitals goalie Braden Holtby behind the Washington net. It was a mere nudge. Nothing malicious. But the Capitals gathered and were ready to rumble.
Until they noticed Tom Sestito was on the ice for the Penguins. The insurrection stopped dead in its tracks. The Capitals’ testosterone level fell off a cliff. Justin Williams dropped his gloves, saw Sestito and tapped before throwing a punch.
Sestito is 6-foot-5, 228 pounds of bad news. He’s also a funny guy and a great teammate, something most enforcers seem to be.
Two minutes later, the obligatory fight occurred. Yawn. Sestito got the decision over Capitals meathead Tom Wilson. The crowd popped. The game restarted.
But that instance where the Capitals visibly backed up made me ponder the value of Sestito. Especially with Sidney Crosby recently concussed, which draws a target on his head among the NHL’s lesser lights (both players and coaches).
In a regular-season game, it doesn’t matter who the 12th forward is. But by the same token, you can’t hide him. Witness Sestito’s point-blank miss in the opener. But losing a fistful of goals might be worth the protection factor.
According to HockeyFights.com (sigh), Sestito has won just 13 of 30 NHL fights over his last five seasons. But he’s willing, and he does damage.
Anyway, the result isn’t what matters. Being willing to always stand up for your teammates is, and Sestito doesn’t pick his spots.
Sestito can also play. A little. He has 10 goals and nine assists in 143 NHL games.
“I’m not just a fighter,” Sestito said after Saturday’s 3-2 home win over Anaheim. “I’m going hard on the forecheck. If you can play the game, you can play in this league. I’m sure I can play. I think the guys like having me in the lineup.”
Chris Kunitz does: “Tommy brings an energy about his game and obviously, a toughness. You can say that’s a dying breed, but if he plays within himself, keeps his emotions in check and plays hard, it’s a bonus for our team.
“He’s got better than average hands for most guys, especially a big guy. He probably got forced into that [role] early on because he’s such a big hockey player. But Tommy’s got some really good skills.”
The last thing the Penguins need is a celebrity goon. The election of journeyman thug John Scott to last year’s NHL All-Star three-on-three whatever was an embarrassing blight exacerbated by Scott being spoon-fed the MVP by his Pacific Division teammates in a scene right out of a babyface win to end WrestleMania. Scott is currently where he belongs, out of pro hockey.
But that moment where Sestito made the Capitals flinch has me thinking.
So does an autograph Crosby signed for Sestito’s newborn son last season:
“To Killian, I felt a foot taller with your dad in the lineup.”
There’s some value to that statement.
When Crosby and Bryan Rust return to the lineup, GM Jim Rutherford will have to make a few difficult roster decisions.
Whether or not to keep Sestito in Pittsburgh will be one of them.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).