The moment the Toronto Maple Leafs traded two first round picks and a second-rounder to Boston for a 21-year-old Phil Kessel, he became the centerpiece of their rebuild. Rather than patiently accumulate pieces through the draft, former GM Brian Burke stepped on the accelerator.
It was a move away from stockpiling unknown assets and towards acquiring a known commodity the team projected would blossom as an elite scorer, based on what he’d already done in the NHL And now that he’s matured into someone capable of being a top-10 league-wide scorer who is one season away from UFA eligibility, it was time to pay him. And it appears the
Leafs will shell out around $8 million on a long-term deal because it was the only thing to do. Turning their back on a talent like Kessel after investing so much in him already would have been disastrous for a team that finally seems to be making some headway, after seven years of being buried in the draft lottery. The $8 million tag is certainly staggering, but it’s the cost of business if you want to ice a competitive team in the NHL. And if you’re not prepared to throw down a top 10 salary on a top 10 scorer who had a great playoff showing in his first foray with your team, who the heck will you pay? At this point in Toronto’s redevelopment as a relevant playoff team it should be unacceptable to take a step back after coming minutes away from knocking out Boston and advancing to Round 2. We still don’t really know what the Maple Leafs are as a team, but there’s much more potential for both an immediate and long-term payoff with this roster than there has been in years. It’s a slam dunk decision to buckle in with their current best player – who they’ve already invested time and assets in – and see where he takes you. It’s worth noting that the salary cap should and will shoot back up after this season, so the cap issues the Maple Leafs are currently experiencing won’t be further tested by this raise for Kessel. Decisions will need to be made with Cody Franson coming back up, along with Dion Phaneuf, Dave Bolland, James Reimer and others. But those are the types of players you should move or consider letting go if they can’t fit in – not your (far and away) best offensive weapon. Kessel wasn’t willing to negotiate a new deal through the season, so this had to be done now. Going through the year with the uncertainty of whether or not your best player should be included in your plans for the future of the franchise is not a way to conduct business. It’s also not a way to pump up a player’s trade value, if that’s the route you thought Toronto should have gone with Kessel. How much will a team give up in a trade for what could be a 27-year-old rental player? That’s where Kessel’s value would have been – and any return would not have filled his void. Only six players in the NHL have cap hits at or above $8 million and it’s weird to think Kessel could be the seventh player on that list. But deciding what a player is worth has less to do with directly comparing him to other players and more to do with market conditions and status. Yes Kessel is getting paid more than Steven Stamkos, but Stamkos had no leverage as an RFA. Yes Kessel is getting more than Jason Spezza, but Spezza signed his deal when the salary cap was only $56.7 million. Everything is relative. Kessel is not the seventh best player in the league, but if Toronto let him test free agency somebody would have paid him and Toronto would have been left with a crater in its roster. And they had to do business with him over the long-term because, again, if they didn’t he would have searched for it – and found it – in some other market. To ice a competitive team you have to invest in the best players you have. It’s nearly impossible to acquire these type of guys through trade, or on the free agent market, since top-level scorers rarely make it that far. And even if they do, the price to pick them up would be a heck of a lot higher than $8 million. If Toronto is serious about moving forward it can’t shy away from showing its top player the money the first time he becomes eligible for it. And that’s why, love him or not, Leafs fans should be happy with this deal. It’s one step towards becoming more competitive and another step away from a perpetual appearance in the draft lottery. It’s easy to forget how awful that was to sit through. Besides, how can you say no to this face?