After months and months of gruelling hockey, the NHL season is finally over, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been named Stanley Cup Champions for the second time in the cap era. Somewhere, Brian Burke is screaming about team development models and threatening to rent out a barn. But speaking of Burke, there’s a certain winger on this Penguins roster hoisting the silver mug for the first time.
Yes, we’re talking about Phil.
Both Kessel trades, the one that brought him into the Leafs and the one that sent him away, have been under immense scrutiny since the second they happened. The Boston arguments have largely ended in a stalemate. Most agree that the Leafs were too confident in their team’s short-term outlook to be giving up so many draft picks. At the same time, the Bruins didn’t have the long-term in mind when they ensured that both of their crown jewels played their last game in Boston gold at 21 years old.
But the Pittsburgh trade was a tough one to swallow, at least for me. Kessel was oft-maligned by fans and media in this city, with the team’s failures often placed on him. Phil, a few years older than me and a member of the team while I was still in my teens, probably ends up being the last Leafs player I ever “look up to”, a star player in blue and white from before, and into the beginnings of my early adulthood.
What made Phil so endearing to me, however, is that he was the everyman’s superstar. He didn’t have a bodybuilder’s physique. Because of this and because of his explosive speed used in Wilson’s rushing and Carlyle’s winger-oriented dump and chase system, he looked like he was on the verge of collapse on every shift. He didn’t totally dominate every facet of the ice, but he was one of the best at what we’d come to see; he’d get the puck, he’d take off like a rocket, and he’d rip a snapshot unlike anyones before him or after him. It was entertaining as all hell and often successful. I also related a lot to his introverted personality, and as contradictory as it may sound from a developing journalist, his hesitance to talk and feed into the lazier topics was something I respected a bunch.
I also get why that frustrated people, though. People don’t come to the games to see a more talented version of themselves. They expect superhuman specimens who look like they score with ease and would rather die than see the other team score. The “200-foot game” is considered to be a universal aspiration, and the points don’t matter if the team loses more often than not in the process. While goals are fun, when you live by them, a cold streak will make you look useless no matter whether that’s true or not. Off the ice, as much as I hate to say it, it’s easier to control the tempo of the media machine than it is to reject it. If you fake a smile and say a bunch of nothing, you don’t allow room for controversy.
As much as I would have liked to see him survive this rebuild, and as much of a mind-shaker as news of the trade was while sitting in the back of a van in Newfoundland, the move was the right decision. The Leafs’ current build structure required about as total of a personnel turnaround as they could get. Phil was the centrepiece of not one, but two regimes before the present group, and while he may have legitimately been Toronto’s most lethal presence on the wing in any of our lifetimes, he was simultaneously the representative of impatience and poor planning on the grand scale. In a year where the organization wanted to be faceless on the ice and regroup from top-down, it made little sense to drag someone who was probably over half a decade into frustration with the attention he received.
Some may balk about the return, but when a star player is known to be on the market, especially with a sense of urgency and a short list of potential locations, the haul is never huge. Retaining salary stings, but was a reality of what ended up being a “Pittsburgh or Keep Him” race. Even still, Kasperi Kapanen made huge strides this year, Scott Harrington seems to be a decent enough defenceman, Nick Spaling was flipped for a decent pick, and upgrading a second into a first worked out well. One also has to consider that holding out likely means the Leafs finish higher than 30th; jumping the gun put the Leafs in prime position to draft the next great American goal scorer, eight years younger, with no prior demons and playing a more valuable position.
As for Phil? I’m happy as hell for him. You’d have to be. After a shaky start to the season, he found his spot in the lineup and proved that much like in Toronto, he does best when he’s simultaneously the focal point of his line but not the focal point of the outside attention. He dominated throughout the playoffs as we all knew he would and now has his first ring. It was fun to watch, and from the looks of it, the less-than-fairytale ending will deliver plenty of dividends to both sides when all is said and done.
YOU DID IT PHIL!! pic.twitter.com/4e7zID5XJv
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) June 13, 2016