Good trade. Maybe even a great trade. Just over 24 hours ago Phil Kessel was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fantastic day, in my opinion. I was going to write this blog yesterday – the day of – but thought I would let the trade sink in for a bit longer. I also wanted to listen to some of the local radio shows to hear from the fans that call into these shows. I find a lot of these fans both comical and frustrating. Throughout the last few years most of these fans have been calling for the Leafs to move Kessel and his contract at any cost. The impatience of these fans was frustrating. The lack of insight these fans exhibited was comical. It is not easy to make a trade in the NHL anymore. Salary caps and no movement clauses play a huge role. The dollar amount of Kessel’s contract was a huge problem under the salary cap. Couple that with his bad reputation and he would not be an easily moved asset! Despite the difficulty in moving a commodity like Kessel, the Maple Leafs pulled it off! Maple Leafs fans should be happy! They had been demanding this for a couple of years now! However, I had a feeling that this trade would not sit well with the folks that call into these shows on a regular basis. I was not disappointed.
Many of the calls I listened to hated the trade. Many of the callers thought the Maple Leafs didn’t get enough in return. ‘Trade Kessel right now!’ they yelled and screamed! Then the trade actually happens and what the Leafs came out of it with is not good enough! Frustrating! I have no idea what these fans expected to get in return! Oh wait, yes I do….the Penguins next 10 1st round picks and Sidney Crosby. Comical!! The Maple Leafs got a good return on this player, better than what I would have expected…how do these fans not see this? The elements have been broken down many times all over the media. What team wants an over-priced player with a reputation for being out of shape and lazy on the ice? On top of this, it has been widely speculated that the Maple Leafs wanted Kessel on the next possible train out-of-town as soon as possible. Based on all this, how the hell were the Maple Leafs expected to get anything more than a bag of pucks in return?
Phil Kessel scores goals. That is why he has the huge contract, that is why the Leafs were actually able to trade him to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Maple Leafs were lucky to trade him at all. The fact they got what they got in return is damned amazing in my opinion. I like the trade, I think the Maple Leafs like the trade, I think the Penguins like the trade and I think a large portion of Leafs Nation likes the trade. Guess who I think doesn’t like the trade (other than the fans I have been talking about)? Phil Kessel. That’s right. I think Kessel is in a tough spot and he knows it. I heard a brief quote today from Kessel and he said all the right things, but I don’t think he is enjoying the possibility of failing on such a huge level. Over the years many people have speculated that Phil would be happiest when he isn’t the major attraction on a team. He doesn’t like the spotlight. He doesn’t like the pressure of being the #1 guy. He did not like the scrutiny he faced in the hockey-mad Toronto market. He was the big star in Toronto, the pressure didn’t suit him at all. The Penguins are a popular team in Pennsylvania and in the U.S., but they are not anywhere near the popularity of the Maple Leafs in Toronto. Most of the Penguins players are virtually invisible on the streets. That is the kind of place a lot of folks speculated Kessel would thrive in. I don’t think so. I believe he is under the most pressure he has faced.
In Toronto, if he didn’t play well or slumped folks would often point at the lack of talent around him being a major contributing factor to his ‘poor’ play. In Pittsburgh, when Kessel slumps with all that talent around him, who will get the blame? Kessel. During games as a Maple Leafs player, Kessel was shown many times curling off to the bench, instead of back checking (which contributed to his horrendous +/- rating). What is Kessel going to do when he peels off to the bench and gets passed by Sidney Crosby – the best player on the planet – on the back-check?
The three major parties in the trade are the Maple Leafs, the Penguins and Phil Kessel. It would be nice if all three major parties come away from this trade happy, I think the possibility of Kessel’s career being hugely affected will be the most likely outcome. In the trade, the Penguins lose some young, unproven talent. The Penguins don’t even have to pay Kessel’s entire contract! The Maple Leafs will help them with that issue.
The Penguins expect to take a pure goal scorer and surround him with some of the best players in the game. Other than all-star games and World Championships, Kessel has never played with this kind of talent. Kessel scoring a ton of goals makes the Penguins a favourite in the East. What is the downside for the Penguins? Kessel going into a hole and never coming out. However, with the talent on that roster, the Penguins would be able to recover.
The Maple Leafs did quite well in the trade. They unloaded a huge contract, at least most of it anyway. They got rid of a lazy, out of shape player who refused to play defence. The Leafs also picked up some prospects and draft picks. These elements are crucial to a re-building team. Prospects are always a gamble – there is no way to know for sure if they will become good players – but that is the chance every team takes. In the salary cap era of the NHL, draft picks have become one of the most valuable commodities a team can have.
The Maple Leafs picked up two early draft picks. The 1st round draft pick is conditional on whether or not the Penguins make the playoffs over the next two years. If the Penguins don’t make the playoffs at all in the next two seasons, the Leafs don’t get a 1st round pick, it will become a 2nd round draft pick. I think the Penguins will make the playoffs, they are that good of a team. What is the downside for the Leafs? The goals Kessel scored will not be replaced, not by anyone on the current roster and maybe not on future rosters for the next few seasons. But if some of the prospects pan out, they should recover some of those goals, which should mean a more balanced, deeper offence.
The Kessel trade was the major move the Maple Leafs made during the opening of NHL Free Agency. They signed 26-year-old Mark Arcobello, a small centreman with some offensive skills. A smart kid (Yale) who may just need a break finally. The Leafs also signed Matt Hunwick, a 30-year-old defenceman. Hunwick has bounced around the league and is on the small side. Hunwick skates well and handles the puck well. The Leafs also signed 32-year-old winger P.A. Parenteau. Parenteau is not a huge player, but another depth player. The Leafs re-signed Daniel Winnik and Richard Panik.
Neither player is 1st line material, but are good 3rd and 4th line depth players. Based on last season, both were considered upgrades to previous depth players the Leafs had. None of these players will be superstars on the Maple Leafs roster. This is a re-building club and will need bodies on the bench. Signing elite free agents at this juncture in the re-building process is pointless. A waste of money, as one or two elite free agents will not be enough to make this team a Stanley Cup contender. The salary cap era has forced teams to re-build through the draft, instead of through free agency. Those days are gone. The sooner the crazy fans in Leafs Nation realize that the better. Be patient (and yes I realize 1967 is a long time), stop freaking out every day.
With Clarkson & Kessel gone, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me. Getting rid of a few more players like Phaneuf, Lupul and Bozak would help my Leafs head a lot. The club is on the right track in my opinion, for the first time in years. And coincidently enough, my excitement level for this team is slowly growing again.