I don’t doubt that Phil Kessel being selected last in the All Star Fantasy Draft will be used as evidence of how poor a franchise the Toronto Maple Leafs are. It would seem obvious that the supposed ‘best’ of the Leafs was deemed by his peers to be the ‘least desirable’ of a group of 36. Although maybe he was deemed ‘most in need of a new car’ since Kessel got a Honda CR-Z for his troubles.
The Kessel Trade has of course been analyzed and evaluated over again, and will continue to be. I have nothing against Phil. He’s a streaky sniper who will frustrate fans with play that at times seems indifferent. He requires skilled linemates to play to his full potential, and he isn’t the type to make those around him better. It’s not his fault that it cost 2 first round picks plus a second to acquire him. To his credit though, he is one of the Leafs’ best scoring threats. He is almost automatic for 30+ goals, and that is something, considering he’s had to play most of 2 seasons with a kid just out of college and a collection of AHL call ups.
But is Phil Kessel the Leafs’ All Star? He is on pace for 31 goals and 56 points. And his 30 goals and 55 points lead the Leafs last season. He is still the player most teams key on to defend against. Given his consistent numbers, that he’s led the team in scoring, that he’s a key offensive threat, he seems deserving, doesn’t he?
Yet on a bad Leaf team, there were better choices. Clarke MacArthur’s 40 points and Mikhail Grabovski’s 37 outpace Kessel’s 34. And Nik Kulemin is a single point behind at 33. Grabovski has 20 goals to Phil’s 19. And while it is a sometimes overrated stat, note that Kessel is a brutal -19, while CMac is -3, Kulie is even and Grabo is +2. These are career pace numbers for the second-liners… de facto first-liners really.
And, it’s not simply about numbers. Grabovski has been the most consistent forward for Toronto. He’s gone from a guy that Leaf fans wanted to see shipped out to being regarded as a decent playmaker. Further his game has matured to where he’s been given penalty kill play for the first time in his career. At 26 and less than $3M per season, he’s being seen as a potential building block. MacArthur is heralded as perhaps the best free agent pickup of the year, though he’s also been a little hot and cold this year. The Thrashers rejected his arbitration award leaving him available. And with over 30 games remaining this season, he’s eclipsed his previous career best point total by 5. MacArthur has gone from a rejected arbitration case to a potential trade piece, and a serious candidate to be re-signed if he is not traded. Meanwhile, Kulemin continues to develop at a great pace. In only his 3rd NHL season, he’s matched his previous goals high, and is 3 points off his career point high. He may not be a fighter of any note, but he works in the corners and goes to the dirty areas, looking like he’s going to be the first power forward the Leafs have developed since Ballard’s bunker was still open.
As said, I’ve got nothing against Kessel. Maybe his selection this season recognizes his previous performance. I am not try to blow smoke up anyone’s butt and pretend this team is filled with All Stars. But I am saying that while Kessel isn’t undeserving, I think most followers of Toronto would recognize that some players, specifically the so-called second line, have performed above their expected level. Maybe their time will come, but presently, Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin have stood out, as a line and individually, as players who have elevated their play… to the point that it’s fair to say they’re the key to and Maple Leaf success this season (as little as there has been).
And to me that would tend to define what we’d look for in our All Stars.