Kessel doesn’t deserve blame for Maple Leafs’ woes

Phil Kessel. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Phil Kessel is one of the top offensive players, it’s not his fault he receives little help. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

By: Chris Messina


Phil Kessel will never get a fair shake in Toronto. It’s been bad from day one and doesn’t show signs of getting better. That isn’t a slag on the four time 30 goal scorer, he’s a very good hockey player. Heck, what team wouldn’t want a speedy winger that could threaten to score 40 on a regular basis without a true top flight center to feed him the puck?

Prior to this past weekend he hadn’t score a goal in through the first 10 games of the year and perhaps his stock among Leafs fans was at an all-time low. In the three years he has been in Toronto prior to this one, the team has failed to make the playoffs and it’s still too early to gauge whether or not the 2013 edition of the Leafs will get in. That just isn’t going to fly in the biggest hockey market on the planet, not when the team gave up draft picks that turned out to be franchise type players.

For those that can’t remember, in the fall of 2009, Brian Burke went out and boldly acquired Kessel from the Boston Bruins; the Leafs missed the playoffs five straight years. Burke – at the time he was only two years removed from winning the Cup in Anaheim – hadn’t been on the job even a year with his new team, but he was determined to turn the ship around really quick and misjudged how close to contention his team really was.

The Kessel deal was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle after he had given the Leafs roster a complete facelift that summer making a number of brash moves. Unhappy with the goaltending his new team had received from Vesa Toskala the previous year, he signed the Monster Jonas Gustavsson out of the Swedish Elite League and also managed to land a couple of the games better shutdown defenseman in  Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin.  They were going to be the big bad Leafs, a team that played Brian Burke’s truculent, belligerent and testosterone-fueled style of hockey.

Gustavsson had never played a game in the NHL and was 24 years old at the time, but was supposed to come in and prove the goaltending Toskala hadn’t given the club the past few seasons. Komisarek looked as though he was one of the games next rough and tumble stay at home defenseman, while Beauchemin was only a couple years removed from playing 30 minutes a night on a championship team. All the Leafs needed was that other winger that could score so they went out and traded for Kessel.

At the time all of this was going on Kessel was a restricted free-agent looking to ink his second NHL contract. The deal he was looking for just wasn’t going to work in Boston so Burke made a play on him. There was a lot of speculation the Leafs would give Kessel an offer sheet – under the CBA at that time Toronto would have surrendered four first round picks – but instead they were able to come to terms with Boston on a trade that sent two-first round picks (2009 and 2010) to the Bruins along with a second rounder (2009). The picks turned out to be Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight (for anybody that forgot).

Let’s say Toronto had made the playoffs and competed for a Stanley Cup as their former GM had believed they would, it would have been different. The kid from Madison, Wisconsin would have been the missing piece to the puzzle that put the Leafs over the top and the long suffering fans that have not seen a Stanley Cup since 1967 would have been fine with the trade.

Instead it’s been the opposite. The Leafs haven’t been good and were at their worst in 2009 when they finished second last overall and drafted 2nd and 32nd. Since Bruins GM Pete Chiarelli pulled the trigger on the Leafs deal he was able trade his own first round pick at 16 that year to acquire Nathan Horton from the Florida Panthers which put the finishing touch on a team that was ready to make a run at the Cup. Horton was a key piece to Boston winning it all the following year until an open ice hit from Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome knocked him out of the final. Meanwhile the top pick they got from Toronto the previous June ended up being Tyler Seguin ended up being a good role player for them and had a couple of pretty big games during the run.

But now Leafs fans are really starting to see what they are missing, Seguin isn’t the 18-year-old kid that won the Cup two years ago, he’s blossoming into one of the better up-and-coming players in the NHL and is coming off a 29-goal season. Although Hamilton has only been in the big leagues less than a month he’s already playing around 20 minutes a game and is looking like he’ll be stalwart on the blue line for years to come. Let’s also not forget that Jared Knight looks like he will be a decent player at some point as well, though he has battled injury in his first season as a pro.

The trade was a mistake the Leafs made not Kessel. He didn’t pick Toronto, Toronto picked him. It’s just unfortunate the circumstances that made him a Leaf. He’s been a solid player, but when a trade of that magnitude goes down and the team dealing you wins a Cup and looks to be set for years to become because of the assets they got in return for the player they gave up, it’s hard not think what if.

Fans of the Blue and White will always wonder.


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