Yes, a little more about Phil Kessel and the Maple Leafs. Have we not all heard enough about The Kessel Trade? The original one, not the newest rumors that Brian Burke has had to deny, that he is shopping Kessel at the deadline. It sparks the debate anew… what is Phil Kessel’s value to the Maple Leafs?
Drafted 5th overall in 2006, Kessel compares fairly well to his cohort. As of the Leafs’ 57th contest this season, Kessel had 117 career NHL goals, the most of his draft class including Jonathan Toews (102), Jordan Staal (89) and Nicklas Backstrom (83). He’s 3rd in points with 219, well behind Backstrom (308) and Toews (241), but he’s played the most games at 349. His -24 is horrendous by comparison to some, yet comparable to others like Erik Johnson’s -18, Peter Mueller’s -21 or Chris Stewart’s -26. By the numbers, he’s performed as one of the top picks of 2006.
In Boston, the story goes that there was friction between Phil and coach Claude Julien. Rumors that Kessel sulked when benched, wasn’t a good teammate, made it known he wanted out of Boston. Much of that has been denied publicly by Julien, Kessel and others. When Brian Burke made his decision and paid the Bruins a first round and a second round draft choice in 2010, plus another first for 2011, a number of people felt he not only overpaid, but he acquired a player who was selfish, one-dimensional, and liable to be a problem on a rebuilding team.
Phil’s had something of a rough go in Toronto. His debut was delayed by 12 games after having shoulder surgery. The Leafs have lacked for comparable talent to play with Kessel. He’s on pace for 33 goals and 58 points this season, but he’s endured goalless slumps of 7, 7 and 14 games this season alone. His being picked last at the All Star Fantasy Draft has made him a target for some derision and ridicule. His frustration level topped out a few weeks back when the normally shy and quiet winger seemed to state that maybe things were not working out in Toronto, that he and coach Ron Wilson were barely speaking (though Kessel did make a subsequent statement to clear the air).
Against this backdrop, with Burke dealing veterans away for picks and prospects, the Toronto Sun ran an article quoting an unnamed scout stating that Kessel was being shopped, to see what kind of offer he’d bring. Nothing was suggested in terms of interested teams, expected returns or potential offers. Brian Burke answered by email that he was certainly not shopping Kessel, no truth to such a rumor. Knowing Burke’s reputation when discussing potential deals, his denial doesn’t actually confirm or deny anything. But, would he be contemplating such a deal? Burke has sent Versteeg and Beauchemin out of town, a ‘correction’ if you will, replacing players he felt were not working out for other assets. Could the same be true for Kessel?
Certainly anything is possible, but a number of factors would point to this being nothing more than idle rumor. The title above says Kessel is a key to Maple Leaf success. Make no mistake, his game is lacking on many levels. He is not the type of player to make players around him better. He is not a defensive-minded player. He slumps, often, and when he does, he becomes almost single-minded, forgetting about passing, but trying to deke the opposition and rip a laser in off the post. At $5.4M per year until 2013-14, he may be regarded as overpaid. Yet, he is key to the team’s success.
At 23, Kessel has shown he is, at the least, a consistent 30-goal performer. While Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin are on similar pace, Kessel is the only Leaf forward to have already hit 30 twice in his career. Last season, he had 30 goals in 70 games, with Tyler Bozak and Kulemin as linemates. Recently acquired Joffrey Lupul (himself something of a reclamation project) is getting at least some credit for helping Kessel snap his 14 game drought (as of game 61, Kessel has 6 goals and 2 assists in his last 5 games since Lupul was put on a line with him). Yet to be seen, but many think Kessel can easily pot 40-45 if he had a more skilled centre, something Burke has been looking to acquire through trade or develop from Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne with the Marlies.
The emergence of Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin has been a surprise. But Phil Kessel still represents the Leafs’ best scoring threat. The future success of the Grabovski line (whatever its form next season) is only enhanced by Kessel’s presence on a different line, providing some scoring balance. Without his legitimate scoring ability, it certainly reduces the Leafs to a one-line offence.
It would be naïve to ignore that the cost of assets to acquire Kessel makes his being traded less likely. In Beauchemin and Versteeg, Burke was trading away a 32-year-old free agent signing, and a decent player he got for 3 prospects, only 1 of whom has NHL experience at this point. Those trades returned a potential top-6 forward, a mid-level prospect and 3 draft selections.
But recall, Phil Kessel cost the Leafs 2 consecutive first round draft picks, plus a second round pick. Some feel that trade was a mistake, in that those draft picks would help a team begin a rebuild, whereas Kessel is a player who helps a team that already has a solid base. Ultimately the trade was made, and Kessel is already a Maple Leaf. Forget ‘saving face’, Burke would need to acquire significant assets in return for Kessel, especially if he were to trade him before the final asset was selected by the Bruins in the 2011 draft, simply to try to reclaim his losses. Burke did overpay, but it’s not likely that Burke would accept significantly less than he spent for Phil. Burke would be sending Kessel in a trade only if he were offered players that would make his team better immediately. Acquiring yet-to-develop prospects or picks for Phil only brings Toronto back to the summer of 2009.
Watching Phil Kessel is something of a roller-coaster ride. We’ve seen him weave through 3 players, cut to the high slot and wire a goal by the goalie. Even some of his misses are exciting plays. At the same time, he is maddening with his tendency to float on the backcheck, to avoid physical play, and to try to do it all by himself to break a slump. He will need to find ways to be a better player during those stretches when he is not scoring, to become a more complete player, which would enhance his value to the Leafs. But, as the Toronto Maple Leafs slowly improve and try to regain some stability, there is no doubt that Phil Kessel is already an important piece of the puzzle, and will be for years to come.