Phil Kessel traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins! The headlines screamed across the hockey media last year as the Toronto Maple Leafs finally moved the guy they just couldn’t figure out. Kessel had to go, and go he went. It seemed to many involved that canning Kessel was inevitable, not only in a general sense, but also specifically as a part of the beginnings of a Leafs rebuild.
But, moving Kessel was the piece of the puzzle that the Penguins needed to get over the top. Last October I wrote in Leafs Mistake Possibly Means a Penguins Cup the following,
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.
I hate to say I told you so, but…
Leafs Sans Kessel
The Leafs went on to have a horrible season, but were rewarded with the number one pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. As predicted, they grabbed Auston Matthews, a player of who it was written by Dennis Schellenberg in The Hockey Writers’ Prospect Profile,
Matthews has the potential to become a franchise player for whichever team picking him up. He brings all the tools to the table which are needed to become a generational talent.
That is quite a resounding endorsement for Matthews, in a way similar to that given to Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel last year. The Leafs rebuild is in full-swing, albeit without one of their most prolific scorers in recent memory.
Kessel had 181 goals in six seasons with Toronto. His 26 goals and 33 points in this regular season were only two shy of his 61 point total his last season with the Leafs. But, he led the Penguins throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs and some say deserved to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. The question is, were the Leafs smart to trade Kessel?
Kessel Trade Was Good
The deal worked out perfectly for both teams. Pittsburgh received an elite goal scorer, who led the team in playoff scoring and was a key player on a championship run. The Leafs received a draft pick and a top prospect for Kessel. The Leafs, a rebuilding team, had no real use for a player like Kessel. The deal opened up salary cap space and a roster spot for a younger player. It’s safe to say, if not for the Kessel trade it’s highly unlikely the Leafs would have finished last overall and won the draft lottery and with it the right to select star forward prospect Auston Matthews.
Nice linear logic saying that the Kessel trade was good all around. I realize that we can all put a silver lining on a trade after the fact. Maybe Brendan Shanahan and management are genius for freeing up cap space and positioning the Leafs to get Matthews.
The Leafs just brought in Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks. Picking up Andersen was a smart move according to Eric Duhatschek of the GlobeandMail.com saying Lou Lamoriello was finally getting things right:
On Monday, he made another smart move, plugging an ultracompetitive player into a Leafs organization that is slowly, finally, starting to get things right.
In hindsight the Kessel trade may have been a very good move for the Leafs. But, then there is still going to be a smattering of this:
— Frank the tank (@faridk89) June 13, 2016
The jury is still out on whether or not the Leafs did the right thing in moving Kessel. I predicted that Kessel going to Pittsburgh greatly enhanced their chances of winning the Stanley Cup and they did. I said, and still believe, that burning down the entire program may not always be the best way to rebuild. I felt that way when he was moved to the Pens.
Looking back, it was a stupendous move for the Penguins, and we will see how long it takes for the Leafs to get back into the playoffs and be able to feel equally as good about moving a top scorer.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.