There are no guarantees the acquisition of Phil Kessel is going to be the cure for what ails the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only that, the potential exists for the whole thing to become a disaster.
After all, the Maple Leafs have invested three draft picks and $27 million in a mercurial talent who scores in bunches and endures long periods of low productivity, has displayed little inclination for two-way play and orchestrated his departure from Boston, essentially because he couldn’t get along with a demanding coach.
Unlike Dany Heatley, Kessel was a free agent with no contractual obligations and had every right to secure his own destination, so the two cases aren’t even close to being the same. But still, it has to raise a few red flags, doesn’t it?
But more than anything, Brian Burke’s acquisition of Kessel is another indication that less than 10 months into the job as Leafs’ GM, Burke is taking the once-turgid franchise on a bold and exciting direction and is doing it decisively. In fact, the Leafs haven’t seen this kind of creative thinking in the front office since the late 1990s when Mike Smith was running the hockey department before Ken Dryden chased him out of the post.
There was a day in Leaf land when a decision of this magnitude would have had to be ruminated upon, discussed ad nauseam with the board of directors and hashed out repeatedly. By that time, of course, someone else would have landed Kessel and the Leafs would have once again been on the outside looking in. That’s clearly not the case with Burke in charge and it’s a refreshing sight to see.
The Kessel deal also makes it clear Burke has made Toronto a desired destination for good, young players for a change. There was a time when players such as Tyler Bozak and Jonas Gustavsson wouldn’t have given Toronto a second thought. And there was a time when the Leafs would have landed Kessel, though he would have been 36 years old and looking for a nice, fat retirement contract.
Of course, Burke has his shortcomings, but he has demonstrated he doesn’t just move pieces around for the sake of change. There is a plan in place and, while there’s no guarantee the plan will be successful, at least there is a sense of direction this franchise hasn’t seen in decades.
When he was hired, Burke talked about the Leafs having more pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence and they have 12 fights so far in the pre-season. He has changed everything about the culture of this team on and off the ice and his recent additions to the team’s scouting staff will be even more vital now, given that the team doesn’t have a first round pick in the next two drafts.
And now he has Kessel, a player who can obviously score goals as evidenced by the fact he did so 36 times for the Bruins last season. There is some obvious upside potential with Kessel being just 21 years old and unlike the picks, he’s a tangible, known commodity. But that comes with a downside as well, particularly when you’re talking about a player who has some real shortcomings.
Such as, did you know that of Kessel’s 36 goals last season, just seven of them were scored against teams that qualified for the playoffs? Or that at one point last season, he went 14 games without a goal and had another stretch where he scored just one goal in 11 games? Even though this was a trade that Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was forced to make, you know he would have moved heaven and earth to keep Kessel if he thought Kessel was worth keeping.
And those who suggest Kessel feasted off the talents of one of the best playmakers in the league today certainly aren’t off base in that notion. Kessel played primarily last season with Milan Lucic, who opened up all kinds of space for him, and Marc Savard, who teed him up for a good number of goals. In fact, Savard drew an assist on 22 of Kessel’s 36 goals last season, with a whopping 17 of those being first assists. That means almost half of Kessel’s goals came on direct feeds from one of the league’s most talented set-up men.
With all due respect, you can bet Kessel won’t be seeing those kinds of looks from Matt Stajan.
In the end, the Leafs receive the potential game-breaker they so desperately need and the Bruins get both picks and the underappreciated commodity that is cap space they can use for the future.
And for the Leafs, it’s another indication Burke is willing to take this staid franchise into places where it has never been before.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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