Let’s Talk More About The Kessel Trade!

Jonathan Willis
November 23 2011 05:59PM

It’s the debate that never seems to die: whether the trade that brought Phil Kessel to Toronto was a good decision or a poor decision. Seguin has a good week; it was a terrible trade. Kessel has a good week; it was a glorious bit of management by Leafs general manager Brian Burke.

Naturally, “Phil Kessel leads the NHL in scoring” moves the debate a little bit too.

The Globe And Mail’s Robert MacLeod revisited the debate earlier today. His piece opens with the following paragraph:

We gather here today to bury the notion that Maple Leaf general manager Brian Burke blew it when he traded for Phil Kessel a little over two years ago.

It’s an absolute statement. We’re burying the notion; there’s a finality in that kind of phrasing, as though things were settled once and for all. Two paragraphs later:

The Leaf forward with the heavy shot continues to lead the NHL in points with 30 and in goals with 16, four better than his closest rivals, James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Milan Michalek of the surprising Ottawa Senators.

Consider two sentences, both equally valid, that summarize some of the content of that paragraph:

Phil Kessel leads the NHL in goals, with four more than the second-best player. Phil Kessel has four goals more than James Neal and Milan Michalek.

The first sentence carries weight: the NHL’s leading goal-scorer is undeniably a valuable player, a player worth nearly any price to acquire. The second sentence, however, is decidedly weaker – outscoring Milan Michalek and James Neal is a good thing, but hardly the stuff dreams are made of.

What’s the point? Simple: the point is that it’s early in the season. Milan Michalek and James Neal are tied for second in the NHL’s goal race. Kris Versteeg is a top-five scorer; so too is Joffrey Lupul. Marc-Andre Bergeron is the NHL’s second-highest scoring defenseman, and only recently ceded the top spot. Nick Leddy is one of the league’s best offensive blue-liners. Kari Lehtonen leads the league in wins; Tim Thomas’ toughest competitors for the save percentage crown are Nikolai Khabibulin and Mike Smith.

All of these players are off to good starts. It’s unlikely that many of them will hang on to their current positions in their respective NHL statistical races. So while Phil Kessel’s performance 22 games into 2011-12 matters and – even if we account for his unsustainable shooting percentage – should be applauded, it’s hardly definitive.

It’s the latest in a long list of things that have happened since the trade that shouldn’t be viewed as definitive, but have at various points been noted as being such:

  • Kessel’s 55 points in his debut season in Toronto
  • The Leafs missing the playoffs in 2009-10
  • That first round pick turning into a second overall selection
  • Kessel’s minus-20 rating in 2010-11
  • The Leafs missing the playoffs in each of Kessel’s first two seasons
  • The Bruins’ Stanley Cup win without Kessel in 2011
  • Kessel leading the league in scoring 22 games into 2011-12

Like all those people in a hurry to decide whether Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin or Jeff Skinner was the best player available in 2010 or whether the Blue Jackets made a mistake trading for Jeff Carter, or the participants summarizing any number of other hockey debates, the folks rushing to pronounce the Kessel trade one way or the other are missing something significant: there’s still a lot of highway to cover.

The final analysis is going to be based on a lot of things. The career of Tyler Seguin will factor in; so too will that of Dougie Hamilton – the ninth overall selection last year who has yet to play an NHL game. What about Jared Knight, the second round pick included in the swap? Those are three young players, all with big careers ahead of them. When it comes to summarizing the impact of the pieces included in that deal, we aren’t even close./p>

The other item worth noting is the problem with hindsight analysis – whether conducted in the summer of 2010, now, or 20 years in the future – is that it doesn’t reflect the understanding of the participants in the deal at the time. Brian Burke didn’t trade the 2nd and 32nd picks in 2010 and the 9th pick in 2011 for Phil Kessel; he swapped two first round picks and a second round pick, picks that could have been considerably lower if, for example, the goaltending held up.

In a debate like this, three things are certain: first, that any single method of analysis will be skewed, second, that there’s lots of time left and many shifts in perspective to come, and third, that it will rage on unabated.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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