On Phil Kessel, Jim Rutherford and silencing the haters

TORONTO, ON- APRIL 13 - Phil Kessel arrives as the Toronto Maple Leafs hold their post season media availability and team President Brendan Shanahan holds a press conference to answer questions at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. April 13, 2015. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON- APRIL 13 - Phil Kessel arrives as the Toronto Maple Leafs hold their post season media availability and team President Brendan Shanahan holds a press conference to answer questions at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. April 13, 2015. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Toronto won’t have Phil Kessel to kick around anymore, which means we might have to pitch in and get Dave Feschuk a ball or a can or Dion Phaneuf or something, since the annual target of his indignation is now a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

How to describe Feschuk’s coverage … well, it was as if all the criticism of Kessel became sentient, took on human form and acquired a byline in the Toronto Star. There was the TRADE KESSEL column of June 2013. There was the time he used an assistant coach’s comments at an offseason clinic to crucify Kessel as un-coachable. He confronted Kessel with that theory when Randy Caryle was fired; Kessel called him an idiot and stormed out of the dressing room.

Then, after Leafs President Brendan Shanahan said after the season that the Maple Leafs can’t have people “who go out and give half-efforts” on the roster, Feschuk landed this body blow:

Only one player’s image came popping to mind for most Leaf loyalists: That’d be No. 81, His Royal Highness of the Half Efforts, Baron of Bad Body Language, Sultan of Diddly Squat. If you watched Kessel huffing and puffing on the bench between shifts for most of this season, you could almost see the thought bubble forming above his head: “I’d rather be deep-sea fishing.”

How could Shanahan not want to eradicate Kessel’s joyless, uncommitted presence from Leafland, and pronto? Surely it’s a fait accompli.

But then, in the same column, his comments took a turn.

Phil Kessel’s professional critic didn’t want to see him shipped out of Toronto this summer. He recognized the elite talent. He recognized the rarity of having that talent on an NHL roster. He recognized how a motivated Kessel could be part of the Maple Leafs’ solution rather than systemic of their problems.

“There are optimists around the team who believe Kessel may have been shaken enough by the misery of this season to look in the mirror and make a change,” he wrote.

Instead, Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock looked at Kessel and they decided to make a change. And when next he looks in the mirror, Phil Kessel will see himself wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey.

If Kessel was lacking for motivation playing for an inept, rudderless franchise, and having everything from his competence to his fitness questioned on a daily basis over the sound of the Toronto media’s sharpening knives, he sure as hell has motivation now, preparing to play on the wing of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin for the next seven years.

How's this for motivation: Toronto’s pariah has a chance to become Pittsburgh’s Messiah.


Feschuk wasn’t Kessel’s only critic in the media, not by a longshot. Nor was criticism of Kessel exclusive to those covering the Leafs, as many Toronto fans were also critical of his effort.

But in the eyes of most Toronto Maple Leafs fans, Kessel doesn’t need an image rehabilitation. They saw the media as unduly cruel and unfair to a winger whose goal-scoring was second only to Alex Ovechkin during his time in Toronto. They see a star that posted incredible numbers playing alongside Tyler Bozak, the Meg White to Kessel’s Jack. They view his trade to the Penguins as emancipation from his constant scapegoating for the Leafs' misfortunes.

Meanwhile, in the eyes of Pittsburgh Penguins fans, the general manager who pulled the trigger on the Kessel trade … well, he needed some image rehab. Badly.

Jim Rutherford oversaw a Penguins team that nearly missed the playoffs last season (although it had some devastating injuries along the way). After taking the helm from Ray Shero, the moves he made to correct some of their lineup problems didn’t pan out.

He even apologized for one trade, the much-lamented Simon Despres for Ben Lovejoy swap with Anaheim, saying he “wouldn’t make the trade” if given the chance to do it over again. Which is really something you never want to hear a general manager say, especially within weeks of the trade’s completion.

The Penguins were in disarray, and confidence in Rutherford to dramatically improve the club for next season was low. Chatter about breaking up the core, rather than enhancing it, was commonplace.

And then, on Wednesday, he made the Phil Kessel trade.

He had targeted Kessel as much as a month ago, speaking with the Leafs over that time. Talks heated up at the NHL Draft, and there was a report that the Penguins offered prized defensive prospect Derek Pouliot, high-salaried veterans Chris Kunitz and Rob Scuderi, and a first-round pick for Kessel.

According to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Leafs turned down the salary dump, even with it spiced up with Pouliot.

Rutherford and the Penguins turned their attention to Brandon Saad of the Chicago Blackhawks, attempting to trade for the 22-year-old RFA forward whom the Blackhawks weren’t going to pay over $6 million for six seasons.

The Blackhawks opted to trade Saad, a Pittsburgh native, to the Columbus Blue Jackets instead.

So it was back to Kessel, and trying to make a deal work with the Leafs.

Without the veteran salaries changing hands, the starting point was no longer Pouliot; it was Kasperi Kapanen, the Penguins’ first-round pick from last season, No. 22 overall. “If Kapanen wasn't in the deal we probably wouldn't be standing here,” said Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas on Wednesday.

So then the personnel took shape. Kapanen, defenseman Scott Harrington of the AHL, Nick Spaling, a fourth-liner for the Penguins, plus a third-round draft pick as well as a complicated scenario in which other picks will change hands. The Leafs would send spare parts Tyler Biggs and Tim Erixon to make the contracts work.

The next key: How much salary the Leafs would pick up annually from Kessel’s $8 million cap hit, through 2022.

“We made the decision that we had to do that. Would you like to not retain any? Of course. Some of the other people we were talking to wanted us to retain more. We made the best move we could make,” said Shanahan.

“It’s tougher in his day and age. Trade partners are at different positions in their own development. We were looking at the future, and Pittsburgh was looking at their needs for the present.”

Present tense: Jim Rutherford rocks it with this trade.

Kessel is precisely the winger the Penguins needed: Not one that relies on Crosby and Malkin to put up good numbers, but whose already dominant game is elevated by them.

He scores at even strength – 29 of them in 2013-14 – for a team that struggled to do so last season, as Pittsburgh was 19th in the NHL. He’s a sniper on a team that was scratching and clawing for offensive solutions in the playoffs for the last two seasons: 2.69 goals per game two years ago, down to 1.60 this season in a five-game loss to the New York Rangers.

There are other problems on this roster for Pittsburgh – the blue line needs another impact player, and the bottom six must be readdressed – but adding an elite sniper was essential. The loss of James Neal exposed that need. Kessel more than fills it.

Which center does he play with next season? Rutherford said all he cares about is that he plays with either Crosby or Malkin consistently. No more of the “Crosby and Malkin on the same line fixes everything!” gimmickry that should have ended when Dan Bylsma’s tenure did.

“That’s going to be up to Mike [Johnston], and how that all fits in camp. We have Kessel and [Patric] Hornqvist. The coach can figure out who goes with who and keep them there on a regular basis instead of moving them around,” he said.

So Rutherford acquires this elite talent without giving up Pouliot, without giving up Olli Maata and with Toronto shouldering $1.2 million of his salary each season.

There weren’t many Penguins fans talking about the folly of Ben Lovejoy on July 1.


This is a new day for Kessel and Rutherford, but the work has just begun.

The general manager has a top-heavy team and just $6.3 million to work with in adding at least six more players. (The Penguins finally signed KHL player Sergei Plotnikov, and Rutherford theorized he could be in the top six.) This team has $38 million committed to five players: Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. That’s less than $10 million away from what the Arizona Coyotes have committed for 17 players.

The elite sniper … well, his critics say he’s a bit top heavy too, and Rutherford acknowledged it. In fact, Kessel will work with Gary Roberts, trainer to the NHL stars, to achieve new levels of fitness this summer.

Although Rutherford cheekily said that Kessel’s fitness isn’t the problem some believe it is, considering he rarely missed a game to injury in Toronto.

“He’s a pretty damn good player. If he needs to get himself in even better shape, he’ll be an even better player. I do think guys that are in too good of shape are vulnerable to get injured, and this guy plays every game,” said Rutherford.

“Maybe we’re onto something. We’ll just have to see.”

Yes, we’ll see. About Kessel. About Rutherford. About whether this is the move that elevates the Penguins back into Stanley Cup contention. About whether this is the move that the Maple Leafs end up regretting, either due to Kessel’s output (finally) skating with a star center or their own return on the deal. Or, failing that, about whether Kessel is what his critics have said he is, which is an elite talent whose work ethic prevents him from achieving more than he has, and his Toronto media friends would have a hearty last laugh over their departed punching bag.

We’ll just have to see.

“We wanted more skill, more speed. And we got that in Phil Kessel,” said Rutherford.