Regarding “Kessel for Nash”, or Brian Burke’s Ontario problem

Perhaps it wasn’t Darren Dreger’s intention to stoke some fires this morning when he went on TSN radio and suggested that if the Toronto Maple Leafs may be looking to make a move of real significance, for a player such as Rick Nash.

This came after a brief bit about how Phil Kessel, the Leafs’ star winger and 37-goal scorer may be uncomfortable in a fishbowl environment like Toronto that is not for everyone. The transcript of Dreger’s discussion with Mike Richards this morning is available thanks to our friend b1rky at Pension Plan Puppets, and it’s worth a read.

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Let’s not take away from how silly it is, from a hockey perspective, to trade Phil Kessel, one of the premier goal scorers in the National Hockey League, for Rick Nash, who is up there but his star is fading. Nash is 28, makes $7.8M a year, and scored 30 goals in the NHL last season. He’s had a declining total every year since 2009.

But Nash is many things that Kessel is not in the perception of Toronto hockey fans. For one, he is regarded as a true superstar, thanks to his many appearances with the Canadian national team, his strong performance at the 2010 Olympics and his nightly appearances on out-of-town highlight reels.

The other thing Nash has going in his favour is that he’s Ontario-born, GTHL-raised and OHL-developed. Nash played his 15-year old season with the Toronto Marlboros, scoring 61 goals and 115 points in just 34 games, before scoring 63 goals in two seasons of junior and making the immediate jump to the NHL after being selected first overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002.

He’s played four times for Team Canada at the World Championships, twice at the Olympics and was at the World Juniors. For a lot of us, that means a lot of exposure as a star talent on Canadian airwaves, a path being followed by other GTA-born players Jon Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Seguin.

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The lack of Ontario-born superstars on the local Maple Leafs, indeed, the team was without an Ontario regular on the team last year, became somewhat of a contentious issue after Don Cherry eviscerated Brian Burke during a Coach’s Corner segment in March. During the middle of the Leafs’ slide and after firing Ron Wilson, Cherry went ape:

“We pay him salary from Ontario. We are the fans out there from Ontario. We are the only ones that would put up with going four years in a row with no and what finally they sign something at the end and they’re all bad.”

Cherry was going down swinging in this instance. Indeed, the Leafs were a brutal team, but so are many of the teams that get the top picks that happened to be Ontario-born players for a decent run in the 2000s. He pointed out that Minnesota attracted Minnesota-born players and that every other team in the NHL has at least one player from Ontario.

In his public feud with Brian Burke, Cherry was able to use his Coach’s Corner segment to appeal to the hearts and minds of the kids who play the game in the GTHL, suggesting that they will never be able to play for their favourite team because Burke only wants American college guys:

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“Last night I’m at the Marlies and the Rebels game… these guys, beautiful guys, they’re T.O. young Nats. They will never play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

And that’s an awful indictment.

The Maple Leafs aren’t bad because they have a lack of Ontario-born players, but if the team continues to be bad, now seven years without a playoff appearance, the lack of local heroes will continue to be a problem of the local perception of Brian Burke.

We’re a far cry from the age when hockey players would go out drinking with fans or exchanging post-game handshakes. As the more reporters and news outlets get access to players, the less personable they are. It’s hard enough to get a guy to open up in front of a microphone, try 30, the players aware that a band of unholy urchins aren’t above singling out a player for a slip-up or a failure to deliver the right cliché.

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So there’s little to connect fans with hockey players anymore. It’s just the game, and the TV networks have tried in vain to give us more information about player’s personal lives, but it’s all just noise. No North American sport is as international as hockey, with as many as six different languages being spoken in most NHL dressing rooms. Connecting with local heroes is vital, and fans would love to share the same connection with a hockey player, possibly having played in the same league, skated on the same rink in minor hockey, or even grew up in the same town. If we can’t connect to the player’s personality, connecting to his experience is key.

Toronto doesn’t know Phil Kessel all that well. He’s the best player this city has likely seen since Mats Sundin, but Pete Chiarelli couldn’t have twisted the knife any further when, with the two first round picks he got from the deal, he used to select a kid from Brampton and one from Toronto. Who they are at this point is meaningless. Burke never traded physical human beings, just futures, for the rights to one of hockey’s best goal scorers in the three years since Kessel has come here.

Indeed, since Kessel began his tenure as a Leaf, only nine NHLers have scored more goals. Kessel has scored more than many a Canadian superstar, including Rick Nash, Dany Heatley, Jeff Carter, James Neal and Eric Staal. He does this at a bargain price. We’re aware of his defensive inabilities, but the fact is that few goal-scoring wingers are also capable two-way players.

The only exception to this rule is Corey Perry, but even Perry doesn’t have the inherent ability as a leader to bring his team to the playoffs every season. What Toronto expects out of Phil Kessel is a player that doesn’t exist.

And in the absence of really being able to critically see Rick Nash in the NHL since Columbus rarely play on Canadian television and have played just four playoff games in that span, maybe that’s what Nash represents to a section of Leafs fans that would love to see an Ontario product, one they can relate to, as the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rick Nash is, essentially, a player that doesn’t exist.

Kessel is closer to solving Burke’s Ontario problem than Nash, however, in that Kessel brings the Leafs closer to winning. Swap the two, and the Leafs are no closer to the NHL Playoffs, and then the reason becomes “well they only have ONE Ontario boy! (or two if Nazem Kadri is with the team)”. The Ontario problem will disappear if Burke rights this ship and gets it moving forward, and gives people more to cheer for than simply local heroes.

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  • James f

    I don’t in any way want to condone a Kessel for Nash swap, but consider their stats over the past 3 seasons.

    Kessel: 234GP, 99g, 201pts, -38
    Nash: 233GP, 95g, 192pts, -19

    Kessel has scored 15.23% of his teams goals and Nash has score 15.27% of his teams goals over the past 3 seasons.

    Offensively there is very little to distinguish between the two. Defensively, they are both very weak. Nash is nothing more than a bigger and slightly older version of Kessel. The main reason I don’t do that trade is Nash costs a lot more and is not worth what he gets paid. Nash at $5.5M I like. Nash at $7.8M for 6 more years, not so much.

    • in regards to the +/- number, Nash at least got one season in front of NHL goaltending. Not sure if that’s the best indicator.

      Nash is four “hockey years” ahead of Kessel, so he’s coming to the end of his prime while Kessel is still in his. Look at those three seasons and see that Kessel has been improving each year while Nash has been scoring fewer.

      If the two were the same age, we have an argument. Nash was far better in 2011 than Kessel was. Problem is, we’re looking at the 2012-13 and 2013-14 versions of these players, not anything in the past.

  • James f

    I wouldn’t qualify James Neal as a superstar or star, but a good goal scorer who gets to play with superstar Evgeni Malkin.

    I think people are bitter about the futures Burke gave up for Kessel is because Burke came in and arrogantly believed his team would be that much better via signing Armstrong, Orr, Komisarek, Gustavsson as his big free agents and claiming ‘mission accomplished’ for a team ready to compete for playoffs, with Vesa Toskala as the starting goaltender. I’d be upset too. Your GM widely overestimates, sells the future off for a star with limitations, while a divisional rival has a Stanley Cup and a blue-chip player at both forward and defence for the next 15-20 years.

  • Kessel’s not a “star with limitations.” He’s not Crosby or Malkin, but he’s one of the top ten scorers in the league and he’s young and relatively cheap. Not every player is Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk. Some people contribute comparatively more offensively. That’s ok. Kessel is a star, plain and simple. Other players can fill different roles, all important in a winning team. Kessel is one of the best at fulfilling his role. The problems with this team have nothing to do with him and the fact that he’s not amazing defensively.

  • James f

    People are putting too much importance on the nationality of a player. If they are good they are good, who cares where they are from. I mean look the two captains this year where American.