Is Phil Kessel the Winger the Maple Leafs Should Build Around?
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Not many players in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs boosted their reputation more than Phil Kessel.
His performance against the Boston Bruins in Round 1 proved that the superstar winger is capable of producing offensively against the league's best defensive players.
He tallied six points (four goals, two assists) in seven games, including two game-winning goals. Prior to that series, Kessel had zero even-strength goals in 23 career games versus his former team (he had three in Round 1).
Toronto would lose the series in heartbreaking fashion, but those seven games changed the perception of Kessel. He took his game to another level and didn't let the playoff pressure from fans and media negatively impact his performance.
We could debate all day whether or not Kessel is a legitimate "franchise player."
But there's no question that when a team has an opportunity to re-sign and build an offense around an elite winger who consistently scores 30-plus goals, makes his teammates better with good playmaking skills, and excels on the power play, it's a contract that must get done.
With 119 goals over the last four years, Kessel has become one of the league's best goal scorers since Toronto acquired him from Boston prior to the 2009-10 season. The Wisconsin native also has four straight non-lockout seasons of 30-plus goals.
Should Toronto give Kessel an eight-year deal?
But the truth is we don't really know how productive Kessel can be in Toronto without a No. 1 center creating scoring chances for him. Tyler Bozak, a second-line forward at best, is the top center Kessel has played with in his Leafs career. If Kessel played with an elite playmaking center, he would have a good chance to score 50 goals.
His playoff resume is also better than people give him credit for. In 22 career postseason games, Kessel has scored 13 goals with eight assists and a plus-11 rating. This is the playoff pedigree all general managers look for when constructing a championship contender.
Kessel may not be a leader off the ice, but on it, few players want to win more than he does. The intensity, passion and desire to be successful that the 25-year-old displays on the ice is contagious, and he rarely gets enough credit for his leadership during games.
Is he captain material? No, but that's not a role Kessel needs to fill in Toronto.
If the Leafs gave Kessel an eight-year deal, it would take him through the prime of his career and expire at age 34.
With the salary cap expected to go up at a steady pace over the life of the new collective bargaining agreement, any contract Kessel signs before next summer won't look so monstrous toward the end of the deal.
The veteran forward recently talked about his future with TSN:
Kessel is entering the final year of his five-year contract signed with the Leafs in 2008, but his future status with the club is not on his mind as he approaches unrestricted free agency next summer.
"I haven't even thought about it yet," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I've still got another year here and we'll see what happens."
Kessel is not a centerpiece forward like Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby, but all championship-caliber clubs must have a proven goal scorer who consistently produces in the playoffs and makes those around him better.
Those are the players successful teams build around, and that's who Kessel is for the Leafs, which is why he must be re-signed and play a prominent role in the team's journey back to the Stanley Cup.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.
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