It’s been a hot topic, and a touchy one at that for the better part of almost a year, since the day the trade was consummated. Â The Toronto Maple Leafs, toward the end of the pre-season, announced that they had traded two firsts and a second round pick to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Phil Kessel, a young American born sniper who the B’s were having issues resigning.
It was a steep price to pay, but you have to give to receive, and in Kessel the Leafs got a bona fide goal scorer who looks like he could be a perennial 30 goal scorer (more on that later.)
And yet some people have cast Kessel to fail, no matter what impact he has on the Leafs, attaching him forever to the trade that brought him here.
This past week, Bill Watters took that to the extreme, and took a piece of integrity written journalism and turned into something sensational and downright wrong, all in the name of making Phil Kessel look as bad as possible because he doesn’t agree with the trade.
As the Maple Leafs season ended, Ron Wilson, Brian Burke, and Phil Kessel all spoke of the need for the sniper to get himself in better shape. Â Not because he wasn’t in good shape, rather because of what sort of damage he could do on the ice, and on the scoresheets, if he was in even better shape.
Kessel, for his part, endured a year that wreaked havoc on his conditioning and physical off ice training regimen.
Kessel, then with the Boston Bruins, tore his rotator cuff and labrum in March of 2009, but was not shut down by the Bruins because the organization felt he could be a big help in the playoffs, even if he wasn’t 100 percent.
Kessel went on to play with a pretty severe injury in a cloak of silence, and even tacked on six goals in 11 playoff games. Â He did struggle at the time, even being benched by Claude Julien and being publicly criticized by his coach and general manager for not “showing up” for stretches of playoff games.
In hindsight, the GM and coach calling out a player they knew had a severe injury looks quite tacky actually.
Regardless, Kessel played, and all things considered, played good. Â Shortly after the playoffs concluded Kessel had surgery to repair his injuries, a recovery time that extended through the summer, and into training camp, even spreading into the 2009-2010 NHL regular season.
Due to his recovery, Kessel missed his summer workout routine as far as the upper body goes. Â He also missed all of training camp, and the first 13 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, putting him behind the eight ball in terms of where his physical fitness should have been in November when he finally got to strap on the blades and don the Blue and White of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Despite missing all that time, and having to relax his upper body workout plan, Kessel still scored 30 goals in 70 games. Â He looked dangerous on the ice more often than not. Â And he became the first Leaf player since the likes of Alexander Mogilny and Mats Sundin to score 30 goals in a season, something we could all agree is quite good company to keep.
He was the Leafs best offensive player. Â And all this from a guy who was seriously handicapped by having to sit on the sidelines for three to four months.
During exit interviews, Wilson, Burke, and Kessel himself, all spoke of Kessel’s needs to improve his strength in the offseason. Â It wasn’t because he was lazy. Â It wasn’t because he didn’t care enough to hit the gym. Â It was simply because the Leafs coaching and management teams thought that with an injury free summer to work out, who knew where that might take the 22 year old Kessel.
After all, 30 goals for a player who missed considerable time working out and getting into game shape is a good number. Â A full summer of good health and exercising, and it’s not hard to see why management feels he could be a 40 goal scorer should he get himself into even better shape.
And yet, somewhere along the lines, Bill Watters, the eternal blow hard that he is, decided to take the story, and do his Toronto journalism best, and spin it in a way so that the facts worked for him.
Bill Watters, to his credit, has likely done more in the National Hockey League than I ever will. Â I have no doubt that he has his network of connections, and while I boost what I feel is an above average network myself in relation to what I do, Watters likely does have more people in the know.
But it is also clear to anyone who takes more than ten minutes to listen to “Wilbur” that he has a genuine dislike, hatred, or jealously with the current management team of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He has routinely, and unfairly criticized Brian Burke for his moves. Â He has routinely, and unfairly called for Ron Wilson’s head.
And now, on the eve of the draft last week, he takes the earlier summer reports where Leafs coaches and management wanted Kessel to get in better shape (not because he wasn’t in good shape, but rather because the sky is the limit) and turned it into his best twist the facts until the story looks better for me routine.
He waxed poetic last week about how Brian Burke doesn’t know what he is doing. Â How he is the only GM who doesn’t build through the draft, and yes, how he supposedly traded our future away in the form of draft picks, for the Pillsbury dough boy.
After reading the article, Watters took the words and twisted it to the point where he even stated out loud that he has been informed that when he takes his shirt off “Phil Kessel does not look like an athlete.”
Which begs two questions really. Â First of all, it begs the question of who Watters sources are. Â And two, it begs the question why his sources are spending their summers spying at 22 year old shirtless men (although to borrow a phrase and context from Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
There is little to no doubt that Bill Watters holds his grudges, and uses his television segments and radio programs to spew nonsensical venom about certain players he doesn’t like. Â It is that type of negativity that leads many players to likely look elsewhere other than Toronto when it comes time for free agency.
For it is Watters, pushing his own agenda, and in this case the agenda is trying to prove Brian Burke and Ron Wilson won’t be successful in Toronto with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and in the process invoking Phil Kessel as being a selfish, lazy, out of shape player who cashes his cheques and goes home to the Haagan-Daaz at the end of the day, something that appears to be a complete fabrication from Watters.
So far, of all the hockey “insiders” Watters appears to be the only one with the sources who can confirm that Kessel isn’t busy working out this summer and getting ready for the 2010-2011 NHL season.
In fact, Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun recently published quotes from the mouth of Kessel himself, who spoke about this summer being different. Â Being healthy has given Kessel a chance to spend the summer working out to improve his fitness levels.
â€œI couldnâ€™t really work out last year because I was still recovering from my injury,â€ Kessel said recently. â€œThis year will be different.
â€œLast year, I was thrown in 12 games into the year and really wasnâ€™t able to work out. I didnâ€™t play hockey for six months before that, didnâ€™t skate or anything.â€
Perhaps there is a chance that Watters has the best sources, and the only ones who know where to look. Â Or perhaps he is completely out to lunch on the whole situation.
In a few months if the entire thing comes to fruition, and it turns out Kessel was not spending his summers working out and training in anticipation of next season, than I will wholeheartedly apologize, I will even call Bill Watters personally to do so.
But in the meantime, blow out the torches, hang up the pitch forks, call of the witch hunt, and give the guy every chance to succeed here in Toronto.
Our hopes depend on it.