Imagine the buzz in Toronto today had the Maple Leafs not foolishly traded away their first round pick in the 2010 draft?
They’d be talking about possibly getting that first overall pick. They’d be talking about Taylor Hall. They’d be talking about the bright side of a rebuilding project that has been spinning its wheels since the lockout. They’d be talking about hope.
Instead there’s panic and embarrassment imagining the likelihood of the Maple Leafs conceivably finishing last overall – or among the bottom five – and winning the lottery for first overall pick, then handing it over to the Boston Bruins as the first installment in return for Phil Kessel.
For Toronto, the Kessel trade was flawed from the second it was proposed. There was no chance he was going to lead the Leafs into a playoff spot this year and even if he’s somehow able to lift the team into 21st or 22nd or 23rd, it means the Leafs are giving up a prime pick this year (and next) and a second-rounder to boot. Remember all the buzz and excitement and kernels of hope last year’s seventh overall pick Nazem Kadri created in Toronto last June and during the World Junior Championship? Toronto gave two more of those away.
How’s a team supposed to rebuild without young, cheap talent coming down the pipeline? A colleague argued Toronto could afford to give up the valuable first round picks because it had signed Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson as free agents and they are effectively de facto first-rounders. Shame on the person who thinks a rebuilding team can give up any early draft picks.
The point was made after the Kessel trade in September that the Leafs shouldn’t be going after restricted free agents or trades such as these. The compensation is just too steep. Why not wait for a peach of an unrestricted free agent such as Ilya Kovalchuk instead? No compensation whatsoever. Then supplement him on the roster with those early picks that are kept.
It’s such a shame the Leafs were seduced by Kessel’s age (21) and upside (40-goal potential). But they gave away the future to get him.
And I don’t for a second buy the notion the Leafs didn’t anticipate the first round pick this year being any higher than 15th or so. This team was doomed to miss the playoffs from the get-go. Our panel of experts picked Toronto for 11th in the East and I thought that was generous.
Now 28th overall in the NHL, I wonder if the Leafs have really under-achieved or if this is what should have been expected. Offensively, five of their top eight forwards have over-achieved. Matt Stajan (on pace for 21 goals this season versus career average of 15), Alexei Ponikarovsky (25 versus 19), Niklas Hagman (27 versus 15), Lee Stempniak (21 versus 19) and Kessel (26 versus 24) are all scoring above their career averages. Jason Blake (on pace for 16 this season versus career average of 21) and Mikhail Grabovski (12 versus 18) are a little below their career averages and Nikolai Kulemin at the same pace as last season (15).
In goal, Vesa Toskala’s numbers have slipped to below mediocre, but that has been the concern for two years. That really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. And Jonas Gustavsson has been about as good as expected in his first NHL season.
So it’s GM Brian Burke’s hand-picked defense that has pushed Toronto 10 teams down on the NHL power rankings? Francois Beauchemin is the big minute-muncher and has been getting better after a slow start. Tomas Kaberle and Ian White are having career years.
Who was it again that was expecting this Toronto team to be much better?
It all comes back to the steep price the team paid to get Kessel. Sure, he may be a budding gem, even a 50-goal man some year, and the deal might have made sense had the Leafs been a top-10 team poised to crack the top five.
But for a team rebuilding, it made no sense then or now and will make even less each day we get closer to the April 13 NHL draft lottery and the focus shifts to a Boston-bound young star such as Hall, Tyler Seguin or Cam Fowler.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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