Tonight will mark the end of a story that never should have been. The 2011 NHL All Star Draft was a bit longer than Maple Leaf fans would have hoped, and unfortunately was discussed throughout Canada ad nauseam. Phil Kessel got the distinction of being selected last in the first time event and was rewarded with a new car for his trouble. There was not a media outlet that covers hockey that was willing to let the story go, in spite of Kessel’s insistence that he was not bothered by the snub. The unusual spike in performance since the All Star Draft is my only reason for doubt.
The trouble with the Kessel selection in the All Star draft was’nt so much as to whether he deserved the honor. There are approximately 750- NHL roster players, being the last of the 40 or so selected is still a pretty prestigious honor. Kessel being selected last is more of an indictment of the team that he plays for, not his play as an individual.
It has long been practice to poke fun at the Buds, and for years they did nothing short of write the material for those doing the laughing. Anybody that lived during the Pal Hal era of embarrassment will attest, Kessel was a victim of nothing more that the jersey he wore. This would not occur again as teammate Joffey Lupul was selected assistant captain to Zdeno Chara. Without opening the wounds of last years festivities any further, lets look at the All Stars of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Not to0 bad for a guy struggling to find his game only a year ago. His game for the most part has been both complete and impressive. More importantly, his play has elevated that of Phil Kessel, which is a task most thought would require a power center. Considered a salary dump in last years deal which sent Francois Beaucheman to Anaheim, he has been anything but that. With continued hard work, Lupul could not only end the playoff drought, but may also earn himself a contract extension next spring.
It has never been so easy to feel sorry for an All Star. Falling in his draft class due to his shy nature only to be fighting cancer one year into his professional career, this kid has had challenges. Kessel had his ups and downs in Boston under Claude Julien, resulting in two thirty goal seasons and a playoff benching. Ultimately Kessel was traded after a contract could not be reached with the Bruins, and from the moment “the trade” occurred Kessel was scrutinized almost as harshly as Brian Burke was for making the trade. Starting his Leaf career with two thirty goal seasons, he produced what nobody since the departure of Mats Sundin could, consistent goal scoring. His production was streaky at times, at one point mock milk carton posters were handed out at the arena, but has since become a model of consistency. While his production has slowed as of late, he still sits with Lupul in a top ten position in scoring. Kessel has been an All Star since becoming a member of the Maple Leafs, good on the NHL for recognizing it.
No day in his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs is as monumental as the Sunday in January in which Dion Phaneuf was acquired from the Calgary Flames. The franchise has been improving since the moment this trade was made, and it now sits among legendary deals such as the Doug Gilmour larceny committed by former GM Cliff Fletcher. Phaneuf is a leader though and through, demonstrated by both his play, his voice, and his demeanor. Phaneuf has embraced his time in the city of Toronto, and in turn many fans have returned the favor. His rough style has recently given way to the personality of the man that captains the richest ship in the NHL ocean. His point totals have become more in line with his early totals while in Calgary, and he currently sits sixth in NHL points by a defenseman.
All the above players are examples of hard work and determination and have contributed to a large improvement in the clubs performance of late. There also is a much better air around the organization which was stated perfectly by John Michael Liles after signing a four year extension Wednesday. It was not long ago that players would prefer to play in Russia over Toronto. The organization was a mess, management was parasitic, there existed not one reason to be proud to be called a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Stability has been the heart of what Brian Burke has installed throughout his management, which includes assistant GM’s that could easily run another squad, but choose to stay.
The organization has created hope that this team will not simply qualify for a playoff spot, but do so for years to come, and hopefully win a championship or two along the way. The Marlies are as good as they have been since coming to Toronto from St. Johns, and the improvement of the Maple Leafs gives the indication that all is going in the right direction. Hope is not a word often associated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but with the change in culture finally taking place, it should be for years to come.