Will Phil Kessel Leave Toronto?
Forever shackled to the trade that brought him to the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Boston Bruins organization for two first round draft choices (which became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton) and a second rounder (which became Jared Knight), Phil Kessel’s life in Toronto hasn’t been easy.
Since arriving in Toronto Kessel has been under a tremendous amount of scrutiny from both the media and fans. A quiet, unassuming player, Kessel has tried to remain in the shadows, but in the media frenzy that is Toronto it has been tough for him to remain anonymous. As tough as it has been for Kessel to avoid the media attention he receives, it has been even tougher for him to live up to expectations.
While the pressure to perform is with every NHL player, Kessel (fairly or unfairly) will forever be judged against the performances of Seguin (who is well on his way to becoming a star) and Hamilton (who is regarded as an exceptional defensive prospect) and to a lesser extent Knight (who is a project). While the comparisons are unfair, Kessel seems unaffected by all the attention, as witnessed by the numbers he has put up over the past three seasons.
Since arriving in Toronto Kessel registered 30 goals (55 points) in 2009-10, 32 goals (64 points) in 2010-11 and 37 goals (82 points) in 2011-12. Kessel’s 82 point effort last season was good enough for sixth overall in the scoring race, yet somehow, the fans and the critics were left wanting more from Kessel.
Toronto fans look to be in need of a quick history lesson. First, an 82 point season is no easy feat. Second, can anyone name the last player to score at a point-a-game clip before Kessel achieved it last season? Mats Sundin in 2007-2008 when he scored 78 points in 74 games played. And the last Toronto Maple Leaf player to score 82 or more points in a season was also Mats Sundin, way back in 1998-99 when he notched 83 points (31 goals, 52 assists).
Its interesting to note that, much like Kessel, Sundin was acquired in a highly controversial trade involving fan favorite Wendel Clark. While fans hated the thought of giving up Clark, the trade all but saved the franchise from obscurity as there were few players coming up, and the ones that were could not hold a candle to Sundin.
Sundin rarely got the credit he was due, at least not until much later in his career. And now we wonder, how long will it take before Kessel gets the respect he is due?
The point is, despite his defensive shortcomings and the fact he rarely plays with the edge Toronto fans love, Kessel is officially a point-a-game player, and they are a special breed and should be respected.
While Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke still gets a ton of flack for bringing Kessel into the fold it’s not often you can trade for a 24-year old player that has the potential to score 40-goals and be better than a point-a-game player, regardless of the price he paid.
With so much invested in Kessel one wonders if Burke will be able to get the defensively challenged sniper to re-sign when his contract expires after the 2013-14 season?
Kessel, who has a limited no-trade/no-movement clause in 2013-14, is well paid ($5.4 million cap hit), and if he performs up to expectations it is not unreasonable for Kessel to expect a long-term contract that will pay him upwards of $7 million per season.
So, why would Kessel leave? Let’s look at the intangibles…
Since coming to Toronto, Kessel has had to endure three straight seasons of futility and frustration as the Blue and White have fallen short of expectations. Along with the constant pressure of missing the playoffs, Kessel is yet to be afforded the opportunity to play with a true number one centre which, in the minds of many, is stunting his abilities and growth as an NHL star.
If the constant failure to meet expectations and the lack of a first line centre are not enough for Kessel to consider the free agent route, perhaps playing for hard-line head coach Randy Carlyle will be?
Hired at the tail end of the 2012-13 season, Carlyle is known as a task-master who demands that his players be in superior shape, play defense and bring a level of physical play to their overall game. Kessel has never been confused as a health nut, his defensive play is certainly lacking and with Kessel known as being more of a perimeter player, physical play is rarely on the radar.
If you ask me Kessel and Carlyle look to be like oil and vinegar—they don’t mix well. Let’s face it, once Carlyle lays into Kessel there is bound to be some form of push back, which will not go over well with Carlyle. Can the two co-exist? Time will tell, but if Carlyle tries to change Kessels game the way former head coach Ron Wilson did, there is going to be trouble.
Of course, then there is the matter of Brian Burke himself.
With the team missing the playoffs since he joined the Blue and White in November of 2008, Burke is on a short leash to turn this franchise’s fortunes around. Burke has been given four years to right this ship and unless he can bring the Buds to the playoffs this season the smart money suggests Burke will be fired.
With the man that stuck his neck out to bring Kessel to Toronto from the Boston Bruins out of the picture, how loyal do you think Kessel will be to the Maple Leafs?
No playoffs, no first line centre, no relief from Carlyle or the media pressure of Toronto and no Burke may spell doomsday for the Maple Leafs. That’s a lot of negativity surrounding a team, so who could blame Kessel if he deems it enough to test the free agent waters in two years time?
There is little loyalty between teams and players these days, even less when your organization is stuck in mediocrity and few top-flight free agents are willing to sign with your team.
If change is to come it will likely come in the form of young players becoming difference makers for the Maple Leafs. The upcoming season may see as many as five young players inserted into the lineup including the likes of Korbinian Holzer (D), Nazem Kadri (F), Matt Frattin (F), Leo Komarov (F) and Ben Scrivens (G). All are expected to push hard for a place on the big club and Burke needs the majority of them to have good seasons.
With so much riding on Toronto’s prospects, one wonders if Kessel will have the patience to wait for them to develop. Clearly, a player with Kessel’s skills has to have a thirst for the playoffs and while I can respect that it would be much more special for Kessel to be part of a winner in Toronto you have to think there are limits to his support, right?
With his team still stuck in the middle of a never-ending rebuilding process how loyal will Kessel be should the likes of perennial Stanley Cup contenders such as the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks or Philadelphia Flyers come calling?
As we said earlier, as long as Kessel continues to hit that 30 to 40- goal mark he will get his money and there will be a ton of teams interested in his services should he hit the free agent market.
With so many players using their unrestricted free agency status to both get paid and set themselves up for playoff success (see Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Brad Richards to name a few) the likes of the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers are bound to be very enticing for a player that will just be entering the prime of his career at 26-years old in two seasons time.
The bottom line is this—if the Maple Leafs fail to improve Kessel will walk and that is not good news if you are a fan of the Blue and White.
Until next time,