Phil Kessel Making His Mark in Pittsburgh

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Did the Maple Leafs drop the ball on Phil Kessel? Phil Kessel is certainly making his mark in Pittsburgh during the NHL playoffs this year, and some Leaf fans are sort of pissed. Did Leafs management pull the trigger too soon?

He arrived in Toronto amidst a tumultuous retool attempt led by Brian Burke, and found himself the object of controversy soon thereafter. Phil Kessel was a marked man the day he opted to slip the Leaf jersey on an stand sheepishly in front of Toronto media; an often bloodthirsty brood who would hyper-analyze and berate the Boston Bruins defector for the next six years.

As the Bruins selected top-rated centre Tyler Seguin at second overall following Kessel’s first campaign with the blue and white, fan frustration climbed to even greater heights and it wouldn’t take long for the vitriol directed at both Brian Burke and then-head coach Ron Wilson to start filtering down toward Kessel. Local sports media began to question whether Burke and his team miscalculated by presuming the picks they surrendered would not come back to haunt them. Hockey forums blew up everywhere as fans debated the decision that ultimately led to the acquisition of the enigmatic winger and the subsequent ‘loss’ of a future franchise centre, to say nothing of the pick that ultimately became Dougie Hamilton.

That said, the fact that both Bruins assets were eventually traded is inconsequential at this point, for all parties concerned. From a Toronto standpoint, the optics of losing out on two top-ten picks who could have become cornerstone pieces in Toronto meant that Kessel, despite his ability to score goals by the bushel, would always be measured not by his own merits, but by those of the aforementioned Seguin and Hamilton.

After the disaster that was 2014-15, both Kessel and newly-acquired head coach Mike Babcock intimated that they looked forward to working together, this didn’t seem to be the plan in Toronto. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan had other plans for the team Babcock would lead, celebrating Canada Day 2015 by sending Kessel packing in exchange for depth centre Nick Spaling and a convoluted arrangement concerning a conditional first round draft pick, as well as prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington. Pittsburgh also received Tim Erixon and Tyler Biggs as part of the trade.

Fast-forward to the 2016 post-season where Kessel, now a Pittsburgh Penguin, is absolutely tearing it up as the Penguins prepare to face off in the Eastern Conference finals versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also happened to be the linchpin that recently ended the Washington Capitals’ fairytale season with a dominant game six performance in which he scored twice, as well as assisting on the overtime winner.

Kessel has five goals and seven assists in eleven playoff games thus far, better than a point per game, with no signs of slowing down. What’s even more remarkable is how he’s recording those points. Known for being a shoot-from-the-hip, one-and-done-type sniper, Kessel is digging in deeper than perhaps ever before. Check out his second goal in game six versus the Caps, where he fights off coverage right at the goal mouth and out-waits Vezina nominee Braden Holtby to go cross-crease and put the puck past the outstretched keeper:

His assist on the game-winning goal by Nick Bonino was the result of both instinct, and a concerted effort to centre the puck from the corner; a place on the ice he seldom ventured into as a Leaf. We are seeing the emergence of not just a clutch performer here, but also a pretty good teammate and playmaker. Again, not an accusation we are accustomed to hearing in association with Kessel.

Well, good for Phil, and great for Pittsburgh. But, should Leaf fans care? If we are going to judge this trade by the impact of Kessel versus what we believe to be the value of Kapanen and Harrington plus a late first-rounder, we are blinding ourselves of the whole picture. These are just the tangibles; the things we can quantify, but there’s more to it than just those elements. Beyond these, we need to consider the desperate need for a change in culture that the Leafs needed in order to park their recent failures and wipe the slate clean. That’s not to suggest that Kessel was solely responsible for what ailed the Leafs, but let’s not pretend he wasn’t a major part of the prevailing culture, which by all accounts, wasn’t conducive to sustainable success.

Part of the issue was that, as a Maple Leaf, Kessel was thrust into an “alpha-dog” role by virtue of the fact that he was the most important player on the team. Like former teammate Dion Phaneuf, he simply wasn’t cut out for the leadership implications that came with the gig. Like Phaneuf, Kessel is an excellent supporting cast member and not a true top-dog, and in hindsight, it borders on lunacy that the Leafs ever expected more from either player. Behind the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel comes alive. He can do what he does better than 95% of the league while flying under the radar, because he isn’t saddled with the responsibility of being either the face or the voice of the team, or becoming involuntarily embroiled in petty controversies as he so often found himself dealing with as a Leaf. While far from anonymous, he’s not front-and-centre in Pittsburgh, and that seems to suit him just fine.

It has served both the player and the Leafs organization well to cut bait and move forward, toward more promising ventures. Kessel has found his niche by providing Pittsburgh with the kind of offensive depth that makes them almost impossible to contain because they can attack in waves, spreading opposing team’s defensive resources beyond optimum efficiency. The Leafs on the other hand, initiated a hard reset with the predominant influence on the group being none other than coach Mike Babcock. With such a young, and impressionable, roster it serves the organization well to clear the room of any and all residual influence not viewed as conducive to the kind of structure Babcock has begun to instill. Without vilifying the former Leaf sniper, Kessel needed to go for that to happen and, as a result, the team’s collective psyche as well as its overall competition level has risen significantly. It’s called addition by subtraction.

Sometimes, in order to identify a challenge, we need to isolate the actual problem by removing the elements which are likely to colour the result. Phil Kessel is the kind of player who can score in such a way as to camouflage a team’s weaknesses and convince fans – and apparently management – into thinking that there is a chance to make some playoff noise. As a result, and without a strong enough supporting cast, said team never bottoms out and they never move the needle on their overall record. They hang suspended in a mind-numbing state of mediocrity in which forward motion becomes next to impossible. And, unless drastic measures are taken, nothing of significance ever changes.

By subtracting Kessel and 85% of his cap hit from the equation (Leafs retain 15% of the contract), the Leafs add cap space which affords them opportunity to build according to a new blueprint; skilled prospects with which to build internal competition into their organization, and a change in team culture which, after a season, appears to be conducive to future success.

Does Toronto fall to thirtieth overall with Phil Kessel on the books? Not likely. That chance of drafting  Auston Matthews probably becomes something akin to a shot at an Alex Nylander or a Jakob Chychrun; both fine talents in their own right, but the opportunity to draft and develop that elusive franchise centreman Toronto needs in order to become legitimized could never have transpired.

Kessel wasn’t the problem.. well, not exactly, but his 64 million-dollar hands weren’t clean, either! Neither was he the solution, not for a rebuilding team like the Leafs. It’s all about the fit, and with the new mandate ushered in by Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, there simply wasn’t one. Kudos to Kessel, a remarkable goal-scorer and emerging playmaker, but let’s move on…

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