Phil Kessel may receive some of the blame for the Toronto Maple Leafs poor performance, but some Leafs fans believe finger should be pointed elsewhere
Just like that, it was all over. It almost felt like there was more coming. Like the Pittsburgh Penguins would throw in a fighter or a polarizing figure that the Toronto Maple Leafs could throw to the hungry wolves.
But there wasn’t more. There was a nice, respectable Finnish prospect, a steady stay-at-home defenseman who was once the captain of the London Knights (because, of course) and a likely late 1st round draft pick.
Yes, the immediate reaction was that Leafs fans wanted more in return from the Phil Kessel trade. A quick poll on Toronto’s Front St. after the deal would’ve lead you to believe that the theme that was omnipresent through Phil Kessel’s time in the city carried over into the trade itself: many just wanted more.
To other fans, however, Kessel as a Maple Leaf was something else: an elite talent squandered under a rotating door of poor management. As the door closes on the Kessel era in Toronto, perhaps it isn’t the sniper whose legacy should be judged, but those tasked with building a team that could support his talent.
One of the few redeeming parts of the last few atrocious Maple Leafs seasons was seeing Kessel fly down the wing with uninhibited speed, jettisoning the emotional baggage that being the city’s most loved and hated player entailed.
“Phil’s time in Toronto was wasted,” said Steve “Dangle” Glynn, longtime Leafs supporter and the man behind the Leafs Fan Reaction videos that attempt to sum up the frustrations of the team’s suffering fanbase. “Then there’s all this talk of Kessel being fat or lazy. Even if that were true, he was the team’s best player for six years. If Kessel was actually those things, then why couldn’t the team acquire and/or develop better players?”
Make no mistake, this trade was as much about turning the page and sweeping the drama under the rug than it was restocking the pantry with prospects and draft picks. Bringing up Kessel’s time in Toronto inevitably means discussing his soured relationship with the city’s overbearing media and questions on whether the constant pursuit of a happy Phil Kessel, one that could perform well on the ice, give the media great quotes in a thoughtful manner and, while we’re at it, save a franchise that had largely assembled some spare parts around him for the past few seasons and tried to pass it off as an NHL-caliber hockey team.
In a sense, this was the Maple Leafs trying to save the hungry media from itself. The Kessel-mania hit a boiling point at some point during the recent season (somewhere between November 15 when he blew up on a reporter after a blowout loss, calling another reporter an idiot in January after being questioned on how coachable he was, then finally making an emotional plea on behalf of Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf in March) and the wounds being as fresh as they are, compounded by the lack of success the team enjoyed with him serving as their best player and leading goal scorer, Kessel’s time in Toronto will likely be viewed as unsuccessful, though it was anything but.
Kessel was tasked with scoring goals, leading the Leafs to the playoffs, (which few remember he performed incredibly during their lone appearance, against a team that had long been his Achilles’ heel) and generally being the face of the franchise once it quickly became established that the team’s actual captain Dion Phaneuf was maligned to the point that he could do little more than spout off robotic clichés to the media.
Toronto expected him to be a superhero. And he was. As Ryan Lambert points out in an excellent look at Kessel’s point totals over the last six seasons and what he is capable of in Pittsburgh, he was part of elite company that included Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin. The major difference between Kessel and those highly-regarded stars was that they played with regular linemates who make Kessel’s frequent center Tyler Bozak look paltry in the process.
He was the most consistently prolific goal scorer the Leafs have seen in recent memory, but on a bad team he was often labeled as the problem. He took the blame, because he signed the contract. The less he spoke, the more that was expected of him.
But Julian Sanchez, a manager of the popular Maple Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets, believes Kessel did all that was expected of him and could’ve done more.
“For the fans with some intelligence, they'll remember Kessel as one of the most explosive offensive stars to play in this era and they'll hopefully feel lucky to have been able to see him do well,” he said.
“He was quiet and unassuming but delivered what was asked of him. If he had seen out his contract in Toronto, his name would be plastered all over the Leafs' record books. He was just what his Twitter bio says: Nice guy. Tries hard. Loves The Game. These fans are despondent that he's gone and irate that incompetent management and loathsome media drove him out of town without giving him half a chance to succeed.”
Another powerful man on the Leafs’ payroll who hasn’t spoken much is franchise president Brendan Shanahan, the man who, for all intents and purposes, was tasked with building this team and after watching Kessel have a middling season, quickly dumped him.
For some Toronto fans, it was symptomatic of the constant incompetence in the Leafs rotating management regime.
“The Leafs had one of the top ten forwards in the NHL and failed to build anything resembling a good team around him,” Sanchez said. “Even when they almost did it by accident, [former general manager] Dave Nonis ensured that the structure was torn down and replaced by the hockey equivalent of rotten timbers. The time that should have seen Kessel begin leading the Leafs back to respectability instead saw them fail predictably–at least unless you were an idiot–three seasons and excruciatingly in a shortened one.”
Toronto management has been questioned for their lack of NHL experience, and ditching Kessel became the “right” thing to do simply because it was also the easiest. The shortest distance is a straight line, and Shanahan essentially had only one dance partner here so the Leafs were handicapped from the start.
That they ended up dumping $6.75 million in cap space for the next seven years was viewed by many as victory for the Leafs.
But given the way even mid-level players are getting paid these days, what can the team really turn that $6.75 million into? In a world where Ryan O’Reilly is on the books for an astounding $7.5 million over the next seven years with the Buffalo Sabres, what grand plans does that $6.75 million become part of? According to HockeyAnalysis, Kessel banked an average even strength Points per 60 minutes of 2.20 over the past four seasons to O’Reilly’s 1.84. If this is what $6.75 million can buy a team in the future, keeping Kessel may have been the smarter play.
Instead they shipped him to the Penguins, who strong-armed the Leafs into making the only deal they believed they could. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford made one of the savviest moves he ever had and furthered the distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in the NHL. Despite the salary cap being thought to bring parity to the league, the Leafs’ inexperienced management team gift-wrapped Kessel to a team with not one, but two elite centers to play with. It’s not inconceivable that Kessel could notch 50 goals next year.
And what of the Leafs next season? Take Kessel’s 61 points away from the Leafs, add the noticeable upgrades that the Oilers and Sabres have made this season and it’s not inconceivable that the Leafs could be the worst team in the league next season.
Now the Leafs have no face to their franchise. Fourth-overall pick Mitch Marner will probably need another year with the London Knights before making the jump to the Leafs, perhaps for his own good.
Leafs fans will now have to move on, and look back on Kessel’s time by asking more questions of the team and management around him than the player himself. The Phil Kessel era was an opportunity missed and not until Marner evolves will the Leafs (hopefully, for their sake) get another look at an elite talent in blue-and-white.
There will likely be more questions about Kessel until then. Leafs fans have to hope that there won’t be as many questions about those in charge of building a team around Marner by then as well.