Photo Credit: Charles LeClarie/USA TODAY SPORTS
With last night’s thrilling overtime victory over the Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins inched closer to hockey’s ultimate prize, while the Leafs reward for helping them get there diminished.
It’s turning into a very cruel punishment for Leafs fans. The value of the first round draft pick they obtained in exchange for Kessel is decaying at the same rate as his perceived value rises. With each big goal Kessel scores for a team on their way to a Stanley Cup, the trade looks worse and worse.
And it already looked pretty bad at the time.
In exchange for Kessel, the Leafs effectively moved up 30 spots in the draft, got a third and a couple of decent prospects. They also had to swallow $1.2 million of Kessel’s $8 million contract themselves for the next seven seasons. That’s not a great package for an elite first line winger, especially considering the Leafs sweetened the deal by retaining salary.
The Leafs sold short on an elite player essentially because of a poor reputation. Yes, it was probably necessary for the full rebuild to take shape – the Leafs wouldn’t have finished last with Kessel on the team, that’s for sure – but that doesn’t make the return any less underwhelming given his talent level.
It was a culture change. Kessel was the poster boy of a failed regime. One that won three playoff games during his entire tenure as a Leaf and famously squandered a fourth in historic fashion. The Leafs simply couldn’t win with Phil Kessel.
He lacked the drive, compete, work ethic, and winning mentality that a team needs from their best player. When the pressure was on – like it so often is in Toronto – Kessel would wilt. He wasn’t a big game player that would rise to the occasion.
In Pittsburgh, he’s rewriting those narratives with every passing game. He’s got 12 points in 11 games, which leads the team – a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, mind you. In a series where Crosby and Malkin combined for one goal and three assists, Kessel picked up the slack with two goals and four assists, including a three-point effort in the deciding game. When his team needed it most, he rose to the occasion.
In his 33 career playoff games, he has 33 points. The only active players with a higher points-per-game (who have played as many games as Kessel in the playoffs) are the two superstars on his team. Not Jonathan Toews. Not Patrick Kane. But Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel. He’s a big-game player and he’s showing it in these playoffs, something he never could’ve shown in Toronto.
That’s because he rarely got the chance to.
The Leafs played in one playoff series during his entire tenure as a Leaf. He scored six points in seven games including the goal that made it 3-1, and the assist that made it 4-1. I imagine many of you have forgotten that part of the game.
When the team needed him, Kessel always stepped up. He carried them to heights they could’ve never reached without him. He fooled many people into actually thinking this team was going somewhere. Outside of him (and the goalies) the team was a wreck. But as Phil went, so did the team. When he got hot, the teams won in bunches. When he got cold, the team looked dreadful. Naturally Kessel was to blame during those times despite being one of the very few reasons the team was winning any games whatsoever.
It was never the others who would rarely score, but always the guy who’s expected to contribute every game. But that’s now how hockey works. All players, even the best, are naturally streaky. When the top guys get cold, someone else has to pick up the slack. That wasn’t the case in Toronto because there was no one who could and it meant Kessel simply didn’t want it enough, try hard enough, or care at all.
None of those were fair statements, and you’re seeing it now in Pittsburgh if you haven’t already. You’re seeing exactly the type of player Kessel can be, and it’s not the player who was traded for a mediocre package last July to one of the few teams that wanted him. It’s the player many of us saw carry a terrible Leafs squad to places they didn’t deserve to be in the first place.
The difference now is that he isn’t the only guy expected to do anything. The Penguins already have three of those in Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. That’s what elite teams are made of, and that’s why the Leafs never went anywhere. They needed more than just Kessel. That’s not to say Kessel can’t be The Guy, but he definitely can’t be The Only Guy. No one can.
Put any elite player in Kessel’s skates during his tenure as a Leaf and the results won’t change too much. Maybe you make the playoffs a couple more times. Maybe you even win a series. But you still don’t go far. No one player has all that power.
No team can win with just one player. Or two even. And that’s exactly what the Leafs were with Kessel at the forefront, a one-man show. It takes depth. It takes a complete team to get there. When the top guys get shut down, you need someone else to step up.
It was the same story in Pittsburgh too. Ever since their first Cup win, the team has been depleted of depth. Injuries played a role too, but it was also just Crosby and Malkin doing their best and the rest of the team faltering because they simply weren’t good enough. Even a team with two of the best players in the world couldn’t get it done, and that’s a testament to how difficult it is to get it done and what it takes to do it.
Now they have Kessel along with a bunch of other solid players that can help ease the burden on the stars. That’s made all the difference as the Penguins look like the most dangerous team in the league and the easy favourites to win the Cup.
It’s more than one man; it’s a team effort. With Kessel, the Leafs were never that, and he took the shoulder of the blame because of it. He didn’t deserve to.
He was dealt for a crappy package of assets based on his perceived worth to the team and the rest of the league. Now he’s on top of the world, and his on-ice value rises with every game. As it goes up the value of the return package gets worse. Funny how that works. Call it karma for the way he was treated in Toronto.
After years of carrying a terrible team with zero appreciation for doing so, I’d be thrilled to see him carry something else over his shoulders in June.