As the Pittsburgh Penguins enjoy their Stanley Cup victory, the post-championship narrative in Toronto now shifts, oddly, to Phil Kessel. Far more than a passenger in Pittsburgh, Kessel is now a Cup champion. Congrats, Kessel. Well done. Why Leafs fans are “supposed” to be upset by Kessel’s success is as confusing as it is inaccurate.
Congrats to Phil Kessel on Penguins Cup Victory
It was a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Penguins. They transformed from a fumbling, fragile flock who lost in spite of themselves into savvy, steel-willed champions with the flip of a switch.
That switch was thrown by Jim Rutherford, the oft-criticized Penguins general manager who brought in coach Mike Sullivan half-way through a season on the verge of tail-spinning into an all-out catastrophe.
Before Sullivan emerged, Kessel, a notoriously brooding, allegedly obstinate sniper, had endured a six-year love-hate relationship with the Toronto Male Leafs, their fans, and the media.
He looked somewhat lost and out of place on a Penguins team that couldn’t execute a clean breakout or capitalize on its formidable firepower. However, with the advent of the HBK Line, Kessel found his niche, and became the impact player Rutherford knew he needed in Pittsburgh.
Flailing in Toronto
In Toronto, Kessel was increasingly awkward, uncomfortable, and apparently disinterested much of the time, especially near the end of his tenure. While never among the captain’s group, he was the uncontested top dog in the organization during a time widely considered the most unlikeable incarnation of the Toronto Maple Leafs in modern history.
The Maple Leafs of 2014-15 made Leafs fans near and far as miserable as the looks on the player’s faces. There was virtually nothing other than a skilled, undersized defender named Morgan Rielly to cheer for, and the common hurling of Leafs jerseys onto the ice often brought louder cheers than the play of the team. In short, they were abysmal, unwatchable, and unforgivably undeserving of our attention.
The immediate impact of newly-named head coach Mike Babcock, along with the additions of William Nylander and Mitch Marner to the prospect, pool re-directed the attention of Leafs Nation away from Kessel’s departure, and to the possibility of a brighter future.
While a sizeable minority voiced their displeasure, the addition-by-subtraction mindset that the Maple Leafs’ brass operated under was largely embraced by the masses. Leafs fans needed this divorce in order to hit reset and find their passion once again.
Nearly 12 months later, Toronto is poised to add its future franchise player to a growing roster Babcock and his staff can mold and manage. That player is Auston Matthews and he will fill that elusive role of franchise centre that Toronto has missed since the legendary Mats Sundin moved on. None of this was possible if Kessel continued to suck up $8 million a year while Toronto spun its wheels ad infinitum. As divorces go, this was a pretty clean one.
Leafs in the Post-Kessel era
As Kessel celebrates winning the toughest trophy in sports – and deservedly so – Leaf fans have never been more genuinely optimistic about the team’s future. As General Manager Lou Lamoniello often reminds, the crest on the front of the jersey is infinitesimally more important than the name on the back, even if that name happens to be Matthews, or Nylander, or Marner.
What these names, along with others, represent is a chance to one day celebrate the significance of the crest on the front by raising the greatest team sporting award there is at centre ice in Toronto. That wasn’t happening in Toronto. Not with Kessel eating up $8 million a year, while the team waded in the murk of mediocrity, alienating its nation-wide fan base with each under-performing season.
If watching Kessel hoisting the mug that he played a pivotal part in the Penguins acquiring stings, well, suck it up, buttercup. Be happy for him. Your day – the one you’d never have seen with Kessel collecting eight sheets a copy in Toronto – it’s coming… maybe… hopefully…
At least, there is reason for hope.