Giving Phil Kessel His Due


In the 2009 offseason, Brian Burke made the first big splash of his tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs when he famously dealt a collection of high draft picks to the Boston Bruins for then-21 year old American sniper Phil Kessel. Unfortunately for Burke, the Leaf team he was tasked with rebuilding was much less effective than he or the fans assumed it would be in the 2009-10 season, and while Kessel scored 30 goals for the 2nd time in his young career, it wasn’t enough to keep the Leafs out of the league basement, handing the Bruins the rights to coveted prospect, Tyler Seguin.

All last season, Burke was crucified in the media for making what looked to be such a terrible trade, and when the Leafs appeared to be heading for lottery pick territory by the midpoint of the 2010-11 season, those criticisms continued. However, a late season playoff push (which was all but ended after this weekend’s games) seems to have silenced the critics, especially since Kessel has played a pretty significant role in the Leafs’ recent success.

Saturday night, “Phil the Thrill” netted his 30th goal of the season to open the scoring in the final episode of this season’s Battle of Ontario. Surprisingly enough, the Hockey Night in Canada crew actually had some decent things to say about the Leafs on Saturday, not the least of which was revealing the very elite group he joined with that goal. It was the 3rd time in as many seasons that Kessel had hit the 30-goal plateau, and believe me, the list of players that have accomplished that same feat in the last three years isn’t very long at all. Try these names on for size: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla, Patrick Marleau, Jeff Carter, Bobby Ryan. Suddenly the draft picks don’t seem to have been as carelessly thrown away as many thought they were.

Of the players in this group, Kessel is the youngest at 23 years old, although Crosby is just two months older. Kessel’s feat is all the more impressive when you consider the following two facts: first, he is a well-documented streaky shooter; second, his center for nearly his entire tenure with the Maple Leafs has been an over-matched and still-developing NCAA prospect in Tyler Bozak, who is probably more suited to the duties of a capable 2nd line center or offensively-minded 3rd line pivot than manning the middle on the top line of an NHL team.

Ovechkin is surrounded with offensive talent on the Caps, Ryan plays on one of the best lines in hockey with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, while Sharks fans would make the case that Marleau and linemates Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton were the best offensive unit in the game last season. Crosby is an out-of-this-world talent, and Carter plays on one of the most balanced teams in the league with Philadelphia. Iginla and Nash could both argue that they haven’t had anyone to play with, which would in large part be true, although I’d still say the likes of Olli Jokinen is an upgrade on Bozak.

Has to make one wonder – how good can Kessel be once Burke finds him a true No. 1 center? Phil had 36 goals in just 70 games during his final year in Boston, while playing with Marc Savard. For the past two seasons, he’s played on a team where he was the featured weapon, with little for other teams to focus on stopping, although the emergence of the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line has certainly helped him this year. He’s managed to hit the 30-goal mark twice on a pretty offensively challenged team, despite hitting elongated scoring droughts in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, something  that a talented playmaking center would certainly help to alleviate.

The pressure he’s already been placed under at the ripe old age of 23 would have likely caused a blow-up or two from a less even-tempered player. He’s handled it all with the quiet composure of a championship poker player, rarely showing any emotion at all, unless at the end of one of his patented “streak down the wing and make the defenseman look like a turnstile before burning a hole in the keeper’s mitten” goals. Aside from the incomparable Mats Sundin, who finished his career with over 500 goals, it’s been a long time since the Leafs had a pure goal scorer like Kessel in the fold, and Burke was smart enough to grab him before he’d even hit the prime of his career, something I still think he’s yet to do.

Yes, Tyler Seguin would have been a valuable asset to the team, there’s no denying that, but the burden for last year’s failures falls on many more shoulders than just those of the young sniper. Since there’s no reason to believe that Kessel will do anything but get even better at scoring goals over the next few seasons, I’m more than happy to have him in town – there’s no argument he makes the Leafs a better team than Seguin would at this point in his career, and there’s a pretty damn good chance Kessel makes Burke look like a genius for this trade when all is said and done.

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Tags: Alexander Ovechkin Bobby Ryan Boston Bruins Brian Burke Corey Perry Dany Heatley Jarome Iginla Jeff Carter Joe Thornton Marc Savard Olli Jokinen Patrick Marleau Phil Kessel Rick Nash Ryan Getzlaf Sidney Crosby Toronto Maple Leafs Tyler Bozak

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