Kessel’s Cup Run is Karma For Those Who Doubted Him

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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.

  • silentbob

    I don’t really get the point of this article – you start by saying the trade wasn’t good for the Leafs but then explain why they had to trade Kessel. Then point out how Kessel is playing well in the playoffs now (not a great regular season though, plus that’s now two 25 goal, 60 point seasons in a row….) but explain why he is and how he was mis-cast in Toronto. Whats your point? Every “issue” you bring up as a reasonable answer…….and you give them yourself.

    Kessel wouldn’t raise his value with the leafs since, as you pointed out, he didn’t have guys like Crosby and Malkin to take the attention of him, so what did you expect the Leafs to do? Plus the history of trading elite players tells us that other teams don’t give up blue chip prospects or top 10 picks (at least not very often, and those moves get GM’s fired) for them, ultimately the younger, cheaper assets are more valuable. A team, for example, wouldn’t give up a Marner-level prospect for Kessel, they’ll just keep the prospect.

  • silentbob

    Karma…what absolute f’ing drivel! Kessel is excelling because he is not THE man in PIT, he’s “a” man after Sid, Gino and Letang. He isn’t expected to be a leader. He isn’t expected to do anything but put up points. Look at his TOI and tell me he is to PIT what TOR needed him to be. Totally different expectations.

    You’re comparing apples to eggplants dude!

  • silentbob

    I was a kessel defender for years to the same Pittsburgh fans who made fun of
    Our team for having Phil. They sing a different tune now. Kessel was flat
    Out dominant in some of his time with the leafs but as I said then I say now, he’s a great 2nd option but shouldn’t be your first. The same as I had thought dion would have been a nice 2nd option rather than the only option haha.
    Now he slots in comfortably behind a couple of nobodies named Crosby and Malkin and the pressure is totally off. He did not get fifty goals this year as many had predicted but he was Phil. Score you some goals and and make mediocre players around him seem much better.i was happy for Phil last night but I do believe them was his first and second goals of this series so he didn’t carry them on his back. I think any smart fan would see Murray has a lot to do wit the Penguins success since well before the playoffs. Fleury has repeatedly let them down.
    As far as the return goes I agree it isn’t a lot but you rarely get a lot back (Nash trade, kovalchuk trade joeThornton trade years ago)
    And he had a bad year on a terrible team as well. To be quite honest he looked a lot slower last year than years past where the camera could barely
    Keep up with him.
    Good for Phil and all but getting rid of him for nothing at all would have been better than keeping him

  • silentbob

    I like Phil. I always have. And Leafs fans should be cheering for him to do well in these playoffs, despite the lower draft pick.

    The problem was/is that he’s a beautiful complimentary player, but not an elite (core) player. The Leafs paid him like an elite one and needed to undo that mistake somehow, for his sake, and the team’s.
    You said yourself… few teams were interested in him. Ask yourself why that is!
    When a player is truly elite, there is always consensus about him. Every GM would love to have him.

  • silentbob

    I disagree with the entire premise and pur[ose of this piece. So what if Kessel helps Pittsburgh advance, the Leafs are better off without him. Period.

  • Brent Wisken

    Shanahan’s Leafs did not have the luxury Pittsburgh has to only pay Kessel $6.8M. Instead, to keep Kessel the Leafs would have had to keep maintaining the $8M cap hit. No team valued Kessel at $8M per year, and hence they wouldn’t trade for him as such. In a couple of years when Kessel has moved out of his prime (which he might have already done so), that cap space will be very valuable for the prospects that will start demanding higher salaries. The Leafs will be lucky at that time to only have to endure the $1.2M cap hit retained in the trade, especially since that money should be reserved for a high paying centre or top d-man, rather than a streaky winger. Furthermore, the Leafs and Pittsburgh are at different stages of development. Keeping Kessel provided no benefit during the rebuild. Moreover, is Kessel even a Babcock type of player? Given Babcock’s multi-year contract, he has a lot of say in the type of players that he wants. Babcock insists on his players (especially veteran role models for the younger players) to be dedicated players both on and off the ice. Kessel doesn’t seem to be such a player. His media/public outbursts won’t be missed either, which were a distraction.

  • Gary Empey

    Good article by Dom Luszczyszyn. The only thing missing was the major role the media had in making Kessel unpopular with a lot of fans.

    Constantly reminding us until the day he left town, of the two first round picks we gave up to acquire him, as if Kessel had anything to do with that. The unfair personal character assassinations were never ending.

    Kessel is not the only star athlete the sports media has drove out of town. Plenty on the Raptors and Blue Jays as well. If one refuses an interview or criticizes an unfair article then the media pours it on until they are run out of town.

    If you notice this year Babcock and Lou have made a huge effort to stop the media from trying to control the team.

  • giproc

    I’m still not sure what some fans were expecting from any Kessel trade. He cost 2 firsts and a second.

    The Leafs received a few 30 goal seasons during which they finally figured out that Kessel is a super role player but not someone to build a team around.

    They also recuperated two firsts (the ’16 pick and Kapanen) and a second (Harrington), PLUS a serviceable centre in Spaling who helped return another pick PLUS they cleared over 6 million in cap space and helped the serious hockey people who now manage the Leafs to regain control of the asylum… as Shanny often mentions.

  • Kessel was a great player as a Leaf! Unfortunately we had nothing to compliment his skills. It was better for him to be traded/move on. Take a salary hit of 1.2 M. Focus on long term strategy. This move will definitely pay off for the Leafs.

    Cheers,
    Agents GTA Hockey Club

  • CMpuck

    Kessel – Stamkos – JVR
    Nylander – Matthews – Marner

    Best top six ever?

    Oh well, happy or Phil, was really excited when the Pens were looking like a Wildcard team, that would be a nice pick, really that is my only gripe as a Leafs fan outside of Nylander getting slaughtered at the WJC.

    Have a feeling I’ll still be happy on draft day even if the Pens win the cup.

  • Brent Wisken

    I liked the guy but he should of never been the center piece in Toronto, clearly as you stated. We can thank Burke for that and then Nonis for that contract he gave Kessel. I also think most Leafs knew that Kessel would do well with Penguins, how could he not do well with them??? In terms of staying with the Leafs, they absolutely needed to get rid of him to bottom out. Now with Matthews inching closer to to Toronto, I think if you were to ask Leafs fan if they would trade Kessel again for an “underwhelming package”, the majority would gladly do it all over again.

  • FlareKnight

    This feels like a classic article by the mainstream Toronto media. Trying to somehow spin a good situation for everyone.

    In the end Kessel had to be moved and it was the right thing to do. Why is this guy trying to spin a win/win situation into a loss?

    Good for Kessel. Gets the chance to play on a good team.

    But, good for the Leafs. You think we could have slipped to 30th with him on the roster still? If you really want spin you could say we traded Kessel for Matthews. I’ll take that.

    In the end it is what it is. It was the wrong move to trade for Kessel in the first place. You don’t trade for the finishing piece at the start. Especially if you never trade for the other core pieces you needed. Everyone got what they wanted. Kessel got to play for a playoff team, Leafs got to start over.

    Frankly even if the pick ends up being 30th and the other guys we got completely bust, it was still a good deal.

    Best of luck to Kessel.

    • silentbob

      Well those were Burkes 2 biggest mistakes, and he was never able to recover from them (mainly because he seemed unable to admit them) – he thought the team he got was just missing a couple finishing piece’s (mistake 1) and that Kessel and Phaneuf were finishing piecings (mistake two). Ultimately we ended up two good supporting players mis-cast as franchise players, and a team no where near good enough to play with/against the top teams in the NHL.

  • FlareKnight

    this article is self-indulgent. first, the premise of cold-blooded social darwinist politics or economics, doesn’t apply here; Leafs management wish the best for Kessel, and traded him to a team where he fit, where he could play to his strengths and succeed. second, it’s a re-build, so every player over a certain age is not part of the future plans. third, it was Phil’s team, and there’s a new sheriff in town. fourth, Leafs management unloaded all, or 3 of 4, bad contracts. fifth, if Leafs take a great goalie with the 87th, and an OHL scoring star with the 28th-30th, plus Kapanen was CSS #1 European, while Harrington was the OHL star.

  • silentbob

    It doesn’t even matter what we got for Kessel. The fact of the matter is, as the author states, we would never have finished last in the standings with kessel on the team. We barely did without him on the team! So to me, being able to draft Auston Matthews in a month and a half is a direct result of the Kessel trade. If I had known that trading Kessel would have resulted in being able to draft Matthews first overall last year at this time, I 100% would’ve given Kessel away for nothing.

  • Gary Empey

    Found This

    Count Brian Burke among those who think Phil Kessel should have no obligation to deal with Toronto’s sports media.

    Kessel found himself at the centre of a controversy of sorts after reportedly telling a journalist to “get away from me” when approached for comment following a Maple Leafs’ 6-2 loss at Buffalo

    “Why should Phil Kessel have to talk to these pukes every day?” Burke was quoted

    Burke added: “He gets paid every day to play, not to talk to the media every day.”

    “There’s a hailstorm after every loss, and they don’t care if they get it right or not. It’s a very negative environment,”

    • silentbob

      Another issue with Burke when he was here – he seemed to want to feud with the media and created and environment where it was ok for his players too feud with them as well.