Phil Kessel has talent, the question is whether he's the right fit for the Leafs going forward. (Getty)There’s been plenty of attention on Phil Kessel in Toronto over the last four-plus years. Some of it comes along with being the top player in this city, some of it comes from being the one who was acquired in exchange for a large part of the Maple Leafs' future.
Kessel has an inherent ability to score goals and he’s shown that over the course of his NHL career, but there are plenty of fans who’d rather see Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton in the blue-and-white over Kessel, even though he's capable of 35-40 goals in any given season.
It’s hard to blame them. Those are the people who’d rather have seen Brian Burke build slowly and acquire assets through the draft rather than trade for, at the time, a 21-year-old sniper.
On the other hand, there are those who were thrilled when the Leafs acquired Kessel, thinking - much like Burke did at the time - that with Kessel and the additions to the Leafs' blue line during that off-season the franchise was at least a borderline playoff team. So, the two first-round picks that Toronto traded to Boston would be far from blue-chip prospects.
Of course, that thought never came to fruition as the Leafs finished 29th in the NHL in 2009-10 and handed the second overall pick to the Bruins - and the following season, they gave up the ninth overall selection.
But enough about the Kessel deal, it’s one that will be debated likely until all three players retire and everyone can dissect their careers and the impact they had on the Leafs and Bruins.
Five games into the shortened 2013 season, the Leafs are sitting at 2-3-0, coming off two straight losses and Kessel has yet to find the back of the net. While anything is possible - especially over the course of a 48-game season - this Leafs team appears destined for another year on the outside of the playoff picture.
Some believe that if this isn’t a team that’s headed for the playoffs then it’s a team that needs to do whatever it takes to acquire one of the top three selections at the 2013 draft, even if that means trading Kessel.
Damien Cox said of Kessel in his Toronto Star column Monday:
Personality-wise, this just hasn’t been a fit. Like Andrea Bargnani, he could be a nice secondary piece on a good team.
On a young, struggling team, however, he can’t be the front man.
Beyond that, if you’re the Leafs, you don’t want to be the team that has to figure out what to pay Kessel once his current deal ends at the conclusion of next season.
At a $5.4 million cap hit ($5.1 million in real money this season), he’s affordable given his stats and goal-scoring ability.
At $7 million, or $8 million, it will be much different. And that’s what he’ll be able to demand.
Moreover, the Leafs don’t want to lose him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent.
The ideal time to trade him would have been last summer, but Burke was still in charge and the lockout got in the way of everything.
Now, given the state of the team and the 25-year-old Kessel’s contractual status going forward, the April 3 trade deadline looms as the unofficial deadline to move this player, and there will be takers.
The kind of deal the Leafs should be looking for will be similar to that made by Columbus at last year’s deadline when Jeff Carter, then 27, was moved to the L.A. Kings for 25-year-old defenceman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick.
Yes, the thought of the Leafs acquiring a young talent like Johnson and a first-round pick would be appetizing to any fan thinking about the franchise's future, but there’s no guarantee that the Leafs don’t end up with a package of role players in exchange for Kessel instead, much like what the Columbus Blue Jackets received from the New York Rangers in exchange for Rick Nash last summer.
Sure, the situation is different in that Nash asked for a deal out of Columbus and there were only a handful of teams that could take on the remainder of his big-money contract, but the season is still young and if Kessel continues to struggle his market value could drop significantly. In other words, if Kessel has an off-season the Leafs may not get the type of return that Cox is talking about.
Kessel isn’t going to be the difference between the Leafs making or missing the playoffs nor is his play going to dictate whether or not the Leafs get a top pick at the draft this summer. So in that case what’s the rush? Burke’s biggest mistake wasn’t that he acquired Kessel for two first-round picks, it was that he overvalued the talent on his roster thinking that the addition of Kessel would turn the Leafs into a playoff team. He rushed.
Current Leafs GM David Nonis can’t make a similar mistake. As much as the answer may eventually be to move the Leafs sniper, it would be wise to exercise some patience.
Chris Johnston said in a story on Sportsnet.ca:
When it comes to Kessel and the Leafs at this point in time, a little patience would be prudent. While that is in understandably short supply in Toronto after almost 46 years without a Stanley Cup and nine years without a playoff game, it's worth remembering that Kessel had seven goals through five games a year ago. Like virtually all goal-scorers, his hot streaks come and go.
The view of this situation from afar is certainly far more measured.
One NHL general manager said Monday that he believed it was too soon for the Leafs to make a definitive judgment on Kessel -- "why not wait and see what he does for you in the next year?" -- while a rival coach pointed out that the "dynamic" scorer still hadn't seen time with a linemate that could bring out the best in him while in Toronto.
"He's a top line guy needing a centre that can play against other top guys," said the coach. "Otherwise, he gets negated."
And you can’t argue that point. Since acquiring Kessel the Leafs have failed to find a true top-line center to play alongside him. If the Leafs decide to move him and he finds that center elsewhere, whose to say Kessel can’t be a perennial 40-plus goal-scorer?
Not including this season, since the Leafs acquired Kessel he’s been the 10th-highest goal-scorer in the NHL, ahead of stars like Nash and Evgeni Malkin.
The challenge the Leafs now face with Kessel is one of the reasons some felt a full season lockout would benefit the future of this franchise. No season would have meant a high first-round pick for the Leafs and this Kessel trade chatter would likely be non-existent.
Instead there’s no guarantee of a top-three pick and Kessel is the biggest story surrounding the Leafs right now for all the wrong reasons.