Phil Kessel is a beast. It’s too bad the Toronto Maple Leafs did not fully appreciate what they had. They traded Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins and immediately made the Pens even more legitimate contenders to win the Stanley Cup. Sure the Leafs are in a rebuilding mode, but in my opinion trading Kessel was shortsighted and not very smart. In a word, I think it was a mistake. Rebuilding or not, the Leafs are very likely going to miss Kessel and his scoring this season.
What They Lost
Here is what they lost as written on nhl.com: “Kessel is a five-time 30-goal scorer who has 227 goals in 668 games, including 181 goals with Toronto the past six seasons…” If I understand this correctly, rebuilding in Toronto means getting rid of a consistent goal-scorer. Does that really make sense? I get that the Leafs are rebuilding, but getting rid of Kessel was like tearing down the house completely.
When Kessel was traded, Katie Strang of ESPN reported Leafs president Brendan Shanahan as saying,
“I think it’s a good fit for Phil. At the same time it stays on our message — with what we were doing here as a group wasn’t working.”
Well at least we know the obvious, what the Leafs were doing definitely was not working. I just don’t get trading away a prolific goal-scorer as part of the solution.
Lethal Penguins Three
Think about what Pittsburgh will be featuring on the ice this season as a result of this trade. Not just Sidney Crosby, thought by many in hockey to be the best player in the world, and not just Evgeni Malkin, Crosby’s cohort in goal-scoring for the Pens. Now they will also feature a proven, prolific scorer in the mix. Are you kidding? Both Crosby and Malkin had 28 goals last season. Add to that a guy in Kessel who has proven he can find the net consistently, and the Penguins’ offense looks downright lethal.
Michael Traikos wrote on September 5, 2015 in the National Post, “How dangerous will have to be seen. But on paper, it is scary to think what Sidney Crosby and Kessel might be able to do together.” Traikos quote Malkin himself as saying, “I think if he plays with Sid he can score 50 goals, at least. He’s got everything: the shot, the speed, he’s special.”
I’m not just going over the top with my prediction that the Pens will have an outrageous offense this season; players are saying it as well. In the same article Traikos quotes the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews as saying, “Hopefully, they can’t figure it out. If they do, we’re all in trouble. That’s an overdose of skill there if Kessel ends up playing with one or the other.”
One of the things that was offered as being negative about Kessel was his discomfort with the media. Toronto is a lot like baseball in New York. Being a premiere hockey city means that the media spotlight never stops shining on the Leafs. Kessel is not a media darling, and often took criticism for his demeanor with the media.
President of Hockey Operation for the Calgary Flames Brian Burke said in an interview posted Monday on Sportsnet,
“I think Phil Kessel is a really good hockey player. I think he’s a really good guy. I think his demeanor and the way he carries himself works against him with the media and with the fans. He’s not a confident guy with the media, he’s shy…He doesn’t want to be the front guy.”
On Kessel being in Pittsburgh Burke said,
“I think it’s the perfect move for him, somewhere where maybe the volume isn’t so loud, maybe the scrutiny isn’t so great, and I think Phil Kessel’s going to do real well there.”
ESPN’s report by Strang on the trade had a similar line of thinking from Penguins GM Jim Rutherford:
“(Kessel) was always the guy, he was a guy that was blamed when things weren’t going well, and he doesn’t have to be the guy here. We have a bunch of them, and so I believe that he’s going to fit in very well.”
Rutherford must certainly be smiling at the thought of a Kessel who is not fighting media distractions, but simply focusing on performing on the ice. Like Toews said, other teams most certainly may be in trouble when facing the Penguins this season.
The Penguins made the playoffs again last season with 98 points. Assuming everyone stays healthy, is it a stretch to believe that they will blow that number up this season with Kessel? Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang are just a few of the other outstanding players on the Penguins’ roster. This team is in a really good place coming into the season. It should be very exciting to watch.
The question mark in the past has been the playoff performance of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Will the potentially prolific offense he will have in front of him this season, Fleury may be able to play with more confidence.
The bottom line of course is that they play 82 games and game one is Thursday. It’s a long season and anything can happen. But, on paper it is very conceivable to imagine the Penguins having a very good year, and possibly making a deep run for the Cup. In Toronto, however, the rebuild is on and I am predicting that at least once during the season someone is going to say that they sure wish they still had Kessel.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.