The first thing fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to get their heads around is that there’s a very good chance Phil Kessel will go to the Pittsburgh Penguins and score 40 goals a year. He might even score more. He could end up being wildly successful with the Penguins and might even win a Stanley Cup there. Kessel could end up being happier and more productive than he ever was in Toronto. And people will have to learn to be perfectly OK with that.
Because that’s very well what might happen here. But the Maple Leafs traded their franchise player on free agent day because they knew he was never, ever going to do those things for them. Kessel was a terrible fit from the day he first signed with the Leafs, cast in the role of the face of the franchise and the undisputed leader by a GM who obviously failed to do his homework on the player. And the problem was perpetuated when his successor signed Kessel to an eight-year deal worth $64 million prior to last season.
Now there’s another regime in charge in Toronto and there is absolutely no doubt now where this group sees its future. By trading Kessel and a second-round pick in 2016 to the Penguins for Nick Spaling, prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington and first- and third-round picks in 2016, the Leafs have made no secret that their rebuild will be done in the tried-and-true method of being really bad for a succession of years and building by drafting the right players and developing them properly. (The Maple Leafs will also pick up $1.25 million of Kessel’s $8 million cap hit for each of the next seven seasons.)
After all, if you’re going to blow it up, blow it up real good. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made it abundantly clear in the off-season that this team would not return with its core intact and there would be significant changes and they don’t get any bigger than this. In reality, there was no way the Leafs could have even entertained the thought of bringing Kessel back to training camp. There was no way even Mike Babcock was going to change this player. At this stage of Kessel’s career, you take the abundant good he can give you and live with the abundant bad. And the only way you can do that is by having players around him who can accentuate the good and minimize the bad. And the Maple Leafs did not have the supporting cast to be able to do that.
So now Kessel moves into what would have to be described as a perfect situation. Whether he ultimately lines up with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, he instantly gets the elite center he never had in Toronto. In fact, Crosby is likely salivating right now thinking of the possibilities. If Crosby wins the scoring championship next season, you can likely expect his assists to goals ratio to increase by a considerable margin. Crosby has done an outstanding job of making himself a better goal scorer over the years, but when you have a player who gets the puck off his stick as quickly and dangerously as Kessel does, you take advantage of it.
Crosby, on the other hand, has never had a winger with the scoring pedigree Kessel possesses. With all respect to Chris Kunitz, Kessel gives Crosby the kind of dynamic winger that should send his assist totals through the ceiling. Kessel has the speed of stick and feet to be able to anticipate and make the most of Crosby’s passes and has the scoring instincts that should immediately make him and Crosby, if the two play together, among the most dangerous forward tandems in the NHL. The fact that Kessel intends to come back to Toronto this summer and work out extensively with Gary Roberts will help indoctrinate him into the Penguins culture.
The Penguins are clearly making a statement here, and it’s the one that could not be more directly opposed to the one the Maple Leafs are making. The Penguins traded their first-round pick in this year’s draft for David Perron. They traded Simon Despres to get Ben Lovejoy. And they traded last year’s first-round pick in Kapanen and next year’s first-round pick to get Kessel. This is a team that has decided the time is now to win, while both Crosby and Malkin have several productive seasons remaining in their careers.
This is a complete train wreck waiting to happen in the long-term, but in the next couple of years, the Penguins will be a feared offensive machine. Their power play alone will be enough to intimidate teams. But will it be enough to make them a true Stanley Cup contender? Probably not with this defense corps, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to simply score their way out of trouble from now on. Those who would like to see more offense in the game had better hope they’re successful. It would be fun to watch them do that and, if successful, watch the copy cats try to duplicate it.
The Leafs, meanwhile, will have to be content with addition by subtraction, at least in the short term. Spaling is a decent two-way forward with some grit. Kapanen was a highly touted prospect whose play has been very uneven the past two seasons and he was panned for his effort at the World Junior Championship. Harrington was a stud defenseman for Canada’s 2012 World Junior team, but is probably a depth guy at the NHL level. And the first-round pick won’t be in the lineup for at least another three or four years. Given the Leafs still had to retain some salary, it sure doesn’t look like they got as much as most people were expecting. In THN’s Future Watch edition, Kapanen was rated as Pittsburgh’s No. 2 prospect behind Derrick Pouliot – who was seen as a trade target for the Leafs – and 37th overall. Harrington was Pittsburgh’s fourth-best prospect.
But they made the move they absolutely had to make when they had to make it. Let the losing and short-term pain begin.