Kessel Blockbuster: Initial Reaction

Kessel Blockbuster: Initial Reaction

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    The infamous Brian Burke “stamp” that has become his signature since his times in Hartford, Vancouver and Anaheim arrived in Toronto yesterday in the form of Phil Kessel and at the expense of the club’s next two first round draft picks and this year’s second round pick. Any time a general manager moves not one but two first round draft picks, it constitutes a major future-shaping decision and one that will ultimately play a major part in defining the legacy of his regime. Yesterday we were reaffirmed of one increasingly apparent fact about Brian Burke’s rebuild – it’s not your traditional model. We’ve seen over the course of the last three months – from June to September – Burke aggressively pursue all available avenues to try to position his club as a contender in the short and long term. Certainly, the 2009-10 campaign just got a whole lot more interesting.

    As is always the case with trades, time tells all. But here’s my generally positive first reaction to the deal, and a few debunkings of a couple of its criticisms so far:

    -In the early buildup to the 2006 entry draft, Kessel was often referred to as USA hockey’s version of Sydney Crosby, but his stock dropped as the draft approached due to questions surrounding his work ethic and commitment. It would be pretentious of anyone who has not been in the dressing rooms to argue this as a problem since he has entered the league, but there have been rumblings of this being one of the reasons why Chiarelli deemed the fifth overall pick not worth the type of money the Leafs just inked him to. Talk of Kessel possessing the Dany Heatley “I’m a goal-scorer not a back checker” complex has been widespread on Bruins message boards. As far as we know, Kessel’s unwillingness to return to Boston had everything to do with what he, his agent and ultimately Brian Burke felt he was worth as a player, salary wise. As far as possible character issues, we can trust that Ron Wilson and Brian Burke, being familiar with both Kessel’s on-ice abilities and off-ice character through the USA Hockey program, do not believe they are a problem or something they can’t solve.

    -As already stated, any time you sacrifice two consecutive first round picks in a trade, the move qualifies as a major decision and will be subject to immense scrutiny down the road, even moreso than your typical NHL trade. Burke believes he can restore one or more of the three picks sacrificed. Is this reasonable and what options does he have?

    • Vesa Toskala. The acquisition of Joey MacDonald in the off-season provides a solid safety net, and while using preseason performance to project a player’s season-long performance and then configuring potential managerial decisions thereupon is usually a fool’s game, he’s looked sharp in the primers. I think it can safely be stated that he’s got the ability and experience to be a solid backup in the league. It then comes down to how Gustavsson fares this season – does he prove to need an adjustment year, pose half of a solid platoon, or does he eventually take the reigns altogether? If it’s one of the latter two, with MacDonald in the ranks, Toskala may become expendable. That said, the goaltending market may be at an all time high in aridness, but if Toskala can establish himself as back to health and relative form, Burke could pick up a mid-level pick here.
    • In the short-term, move a defenceman. It’s no secret the Leafs have a surplus in defensive depth, and that Burke’s been shopping a few expendable names on the backend. Burke may well wait to see who outbattles who for spots in October, at which point Burke could be the beneficiary of possessing a couple of serviceable d-men on expiring contracts in Ian White and Mike Van Ryn. Where an expiring contract might have traditionally detracted from a players marketability, in a season that will precede an anticipated significant drop in the cap ceiling, picking up quality blueline depth without commitment beyond ’09-10 can actually be an attractive prospect.
    • Tomas Kaberle. This is more of a worst-case insurance policy. If the Leafs wind up out of the playoff race in March, there are going to be more than a few Leafs fans looking around for answers as they approach a June entry draft without the team’s first or second round draft picks. Either at the deadline or more plausibly within the trade window that would open at the entry draft in the event of the Leafs missing the playoffs, Burke could recoup a mid-level first and more. This obviously is not a preferable scenario, but it still poses an important insurance policy.

    While Bob McCown may be rhyming off terribly thought out rants about how the Leafs just sacrificed the equivalent of Nazem Kadri, Luke Schenn and a second round pick, a more reasonable projection is that Burke has converted a pick in the 15 range at the 2010 draft (which has not been tabbed as an overly deep one), a pick in the 20 range in 2011 as well as a second rounder for a #5 pick in 2006 that, based on last season’s level of production, should have been drafted even higher. It seems perhaps a bit costly on the surface, but consider how much Burke was asked to move into the top five at the last draft to understand how valuable a pick and subsequently a player of top 5 pedigree is. Consider also that the Leafs are coming off back-to-back top 10 picks and have recently signed two players many would consider as valuable as first rounders in Tyler Bozak and Jonas Gustavsson. This isn’t anything close to the Owen Nolan situation of 2003. Point being, the Leafs find themselves with a lot of long-term pieces in place, and with the depth Burke has in his roster, he’s in a position to recuperate a few second and thirds and perhaps convert a series of picks into a late first down the road.

    -Was Phil Kessel the product of the league’s best underrated centerman and playmaker Marc Savard? Any winger cannot produce at optimal levels without a pivot that can effectively find him with the puck – it’s the nature of the position. Ironically, Nazem Kadri has drawn Savard comparisons from many scouts, and we certainly have reason to hope Kadri-Kessel will be a combination we’ll hear a lot from down the road. But this video of all of Kessel’s 42 goals in 2008-09 (regular season and playoffs) pointed out to me by a reader some time ago is actually rather revealing – often times Kessel can be seen opening opportunities for himself as opposed to simply being Savard’s go-to guy.

    Consider also that Kessel played centre in his junior career, and there are even some rumblings that he wants to return to the position in Toronto. Whether or not he possesses the requisite defensive ability and commitment is up for debate and the feeling that he did not is what led to his wing placement in Boston. Either way, he possesses the creative offensive qualities and outside speed that can create opportunity for himself and teammates.

    -In a season in which Kessel battled mononucleosis, he managed to post 36 goals in 70 games in the regular season and 6 goals in 12 games in the playoffs. Total the two and you’ve got 42 goals in 82 games, with Kessel scoring at a 0.5 goal/game pace when it mattered in the playoffs.

    -I’ve perused some of the reports and discussion on the trade but I’ve been hesitant to for fear of inevitably coming across the assertion that we’ve overpaid for another player with a track record of only one year of real success. This isn’t Jason Blake coming off of a 40 goal season – his first and so far only year he surpassed 30 – at the age of 33. Kessel is 21 going on 22, and is coming off a season in which he appears to have taken a significant step towards realizing the immense potential that once had him pegged as a deserving first overall draft pick. Producing as he did in only 16 minutes a game in Boston, there should be nothing but excitement for the prospects of what he might accomplish in increased powerplay and overall ice time if Wilson can keep him motivated and find him some linemates with whom he can develop chemistry.

    Your Toronto Maple Leafs may be in possession of their most promising young goal-scorer in many of our life times. By all means, be excited Leafs Nation.