TORONTO – Phil Kessel is excited about playing in hockey-mad Toronto.
The 21-year-old forward met the media for the first time Saturday, a day after being acquired by the Maple Leafs for three draft picks. “Toronto is the best hockey city in the world, the fans are great and the Leafs are a first-class organization,” said Kessel during a press conference at Air Canada Centre prior to Toronto’s pre-season 5-4 OT win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
“They just know their hockey here in Toronto. I want to be a part of it and be a part of this organization.”
The Leafs sent their first-round picks in 2010 and 2011, plus a second-round pick in 2010 to the Bruins after Boston was unable to re-sign the speedy winger. After the trade, Kessel signed a US$27-million, five-year contract with Toronto.
“Obviously there’s going to be pressure, but I’m going to work as hard as I can and try to help get this team into the playoffs,” said Kessel, who scored 36 goals in 70 games last season. “I want to be considered a great player in this league, and I’m going to work as hard as I can. I’m here to help this team win.”
Kessel isn’t expected to play until November because of off-season shoulder surgery, but said his recovery has is on schedule.
“My shoulder is doing well,” said the native of Madison, Wisc. “I started skating again about a week ago, and shooting the puck around, and it’s been good. I’m going to check with the doctor (Sunday). It looks like a month or a month-and-a-half”.
Leafs GM Brian Burke added the Leafs have high hopes for their new sniper.
“We look at the 36 goals he scored last year as a platform to what he can accomplish, not a peak,” Burke said. “The way we play, it’s like someone wrote a script that this is the team he’d want to be on.”
Earlier Saturday, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said he did his best to keep Kessel.
“This is not about frugality,” Chiarelli said in Boston on Saturday. “There were some significant (contract) offers made.”
Chiarelli added Kessel told him in July he no longer wanted to play in Boston.
The Bruins were less than $2 million under the salary cap and re-signing the restricted free agent would have required moving one or two players.
Kessel disputes Chiarelli’s claim he wanted out of Boston.
“I never once asked to be traded,” he said. “It became a mutual thing for both parties, it was time to move on.”
Chiarelli, who cited the trade request and “threat of an offer sheet” as the two reasons behind the trade, said Kessel had “concerns” about his status with the Bruins.
It is believed Kessel’s problems with the team started when coach Claude Julien benched him for part of the first-round 2008 playoff series against Montreal. Julien was unhappy with Kessel’s two-way play, something the coach said improved last season.
“My first year here (2007-08) was really trying to convince him that we were really trying to make him a better player and that he needed to just understand that,” Julien said on Saturday. “Obviously, he did because he scored 36 goals the next year (and was a plus-23), but I even told him in a conversation that I didn’t get a bonus for making him a bad player, so that he had to understand that everything I did was to try and make him a better player and I think that message was understood.”
The Bruins had several options with Kessel. Besides trying to sign him, they could have waited for him to sign an offer sheet elsewhere and either matched it or accepted three drafts picks: a first-, second-and third-rounder. They also could have put him on the long-term injury list as they worked out the roster situation.
When Toronto GM Brian Burke came forward, the Leafs were the only team involved, Chiarelli said. Another, unidentified club came in late, but didn’t match what Toronto was offering. The Bruins now have five picks in the first two rounds of what is projected to be a strong 2010 draft.
For now, though, Boston loses a 36-goal scorer, a young talent, and it traded him within the division.
“He’s going to score goals,” Chiarelli said.
While Julien labelled Kessel as a player with “superstar” talent, the coach added, “We just gotta really focus on moving forward here without him and not thinking for a second that now we’ve turned from a good team into a bad team because I think we’ll be just fine.”
The Bruins will look elsewhere to replace Kessel’s offence. Marco Sturm, who is returning from injury, is a likely candidate.
The players were ready to move on, too.
“We are all happy with what we have, the group of guys we have in this room,” captain Zdeno Chara said. “I can’t really make comments on Phil’s behalf, what he felt, why he decided not to be part of it. It’s absolutely Phil’s decision. It’s part of the business.”
-With files from The Associated Press