Amid the countless articles, opinion pieces, debates, tirades, and analyses on the Phil Kessel deal between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins, virtually none have taken into account the internal situation of the Maple Leafs organization.
This is hard to believe; especially in a hockey-mad market like Toronto.
Leaf-hating conspiracies aside, there was far more to the dynamics of that trade than virtually anyone has given the Leafs credit for. As the playoffs progress, and the NHL Entry Draft draws nearer, that first-round, lottery-pick that Boston got from Toronto for Kessel will surely become an even hotter topic.
Let's start with the summer of 2009, when the Maple Leafs picked Nazem Kadri seventh overall on draft day. Kadri is a very capable player, and likely would have performed admirably in the NHL had he not been sent back to the OHL. Prediction games aside, the kid definitely has a future in the NHL.
In Toronto general manager Brian Burke's first offseason at the helm, he set out to do what he does with teams; beef them up. The philosophy behind his "Top Six, Bottom Six" approach, is that if the third and fourth lines create enough room for your top two lines, an atmosphere conducive to success should be the end result.
For those who doubt Burke's approach, he has a Stanley Cup ring from 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks, and an Olympic silver medal from a U.S. team that was considered a long-shot to even medal, let alone lose the in the gold medal game (in overtime) to Canada.
It's not flawless, but Burke's approach to team-building does have merit.
So Burke beefed up the team by bringing in extra muscle in the likes of Colton Orr, Garnet Exelby, Mike Komisarek, and Francois Beauchemin. The latter's physical presence is grossly understated. Another aspect of these acquisitions is that three of those four players are defensemen.
They will join a blueline already populated by the likes of Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Jeff Finger, and Ian White. Clearly, the team's porous defense from the previous season was addressed.
Nothing against Vesa Toskala, but there was an obvious stench to his game from the beginning of the season. In order to build from the net out, Burke chased, and hired goaltending guru Francois Allaire, who's tutelage was refused by Toskala. A successful monster hunt in Scandinavia resulted in the Leafs nabbing Jonas Gustavsson, the best goalie in the Swedish Elitserien.
It seems readily apparent that the Leafs organization had more going on in the summer than simply Kessel.
A revamping of the blueline, and the acquisition of a goalie with loads of upside were not the only things that the Leafs did. They also signed two of the top three NCAA free agents in Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak. Toronto was also in the running for the other Matt Gilroy, who eventually signed with the New York Rangers.
Thus, the Leafs got a bit tougher, changed the face of the defense, instituted a change in net, and even signed a few college guys with plenty of potential. There's also the fact that nobody expected the Leafs to have the type of year that they did. Some may allege that they predicted that the Leafs would perform as horribly as they did, but when honesty is applied to such bold predictions, they fall flat.
So, how does all this affect the Kessel deal?
First off, Kessel is no slouch. The price was high, but Kessel is becoming a high-end player. Coming off of a 36-goal season with the Bruins in 2009, and netting 30 this past season after no offseason or preseason conditioning due to major shoulder surgery, is not something to dismiss.
Many said that Kessel wouldn't be the same without former Bruins linemate Marc Savard, yet he almost matched his goal output without having consistent linemates, and with virtually nobody on the Leafs having the playmaking apptitude of Savard. When the dust finally settles over the debate about Kessel's skill, he will be seen as a premier goal-scorer in the NHL.
With higher expectations like challenging for a playoff spot, a revamp of the blueline, net, and a few college free agent signings, the Leafs figured themselves in the position to chase after a bonafide sniper, despite the high price. While the deal was a risk, as is any trade, it was definitely a measured risk. Now how does this play out?
It turns out that Kadri is a heads-up player with the ability to make some nifty passes, and the emergence of the "Frat Pack" (Hanson, Bozak, and Viktor Stalberg), signaled that the Maple Leafs might have more depth in their organization than previously thought. This certainly cushions the blow of dealing two first-rounders, and a second rounder for Kessel.
Despite setbacks like an assignment to the AHL's Toronto Marlies, an ankle injury, and even a bout with swine flu, Tyler Bozak emerged as a near point-per-game player finishing the season with the Leafs and 27 points in 37 games. He brings speed, NHL-caliber playmaking ability, and a quick visit to YouTube to see his first NHL goal will certainly suggest that this kid's potential is potentially big, as in first-round pick big.
Consider this, in 81 games, Colorado rookie, and third-overall pick in 2009, Matt Duchene's point output was 55. Colorado was a very capable team this past season, even going to so far as to make the playoffs.
In 82 games, 2009's first-overall pick, John Tavares, totaled 54 points. Sure, the Islanders weren't great, and it's very likely that Tavares will continue to grow as a scorer.
Bozak, in 37 games, had 27 points. That's 0.73 points per game which, over an 82-game season equals 59-60 points. If Duchene and Tavares can grow, there's nothing to say that Bozak cannot or will not improve as well.
Trading Kessel for a first-rounder, even if it ends up as a lottery pick (as it did), is essentially zero-sum. Depending on who gets picked second, Taylor Hall and/or Tyler Seguin have to be 40-goal scorers within their first three seasons to surpass Kessel's prowess.
Trading a second first-round pick with Bozak waiting in the wings may also turn out to be zero-sum. And the Leafs have a number of players who can easily turn in the work of an average second rounder.
Another thing about Hall, Seguin, and Kessel is that the media surrounding the NHL is always critical of the potential for players who have never played an NHL game. Yet, in this case, both Hall and Seguin are touted as sure things, and Kessel relegated to something akin to a 20-goal scorer. Let's not also overlook that Kessel has 15 points in 15 career playoff games, so he's consistent there as well.
This is where it gets better for Leafs fans who had to put up with an entire season's worth of ribbing over this deal.
If it can be agreed that Kessel for a first-rounder is fair, then this entire trade can potentially even out, and this is why: Tomas Kaberle.
In Kaberle, the Leafs have an asset with which to chase after, and recover, a first-round pick. However, the deal must be made sooner than later, and that means on draft day. While not re-negging on their word not to ask Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause, Burke will be, and has been, listening to offers.
As far as the second-round pick goes, the Leafs have a number of players that can be dealt for such a price.
Also interesting, after the deals for J.S. Giguere and Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs became one of the youngest teams in the league after shipping out the deadwood in Jamal Mayers, Vesa Toskala, and Jason Blake (among a few others). Toronto head coach Ron Wilson is known for his talent in developing and coaching youth, as evident in the Winter Olympics.
The seive that was the Maple Leafs net was tightened after Giguere came to town to rejoin former Ducks goaltending coach Francois Allaire and provide tutelage for Jonas Gustavsson, something that Toskala did not, nor could not, do.
All aspects of Toronto's game received a proverbial shot in the arm, though too late in the season to make any real difference. Still, the Leafs performed, statistically, like a playoff-bound team from February on.
The early-season struggle to find chemistry amid the defensemen has been given an entire season to be worked out, and again, the end of the season results were promising. A struggling Luke Schenn, in only his second NHL season, rediscovered the game that made him a rookie sensation and eluded him for a chunk of his sophomore campaign.
While Mike Komisarek struggled early, he was evening out before he was shut down for the season to undergo shoulder surgery.
Gustavsson's early-season health issues also seem to be behind him, and it can be suggested that if not for two heart ablation procedures within the first month-and-a-half of the season, the Leafs might have had a smoother start to the season than the one they did, while relying on Toskala and Joey MacDonald in net.
All of this said, Burke's semi-fast approach to rebuilding via the Kessel deal should work out. With trade potential and free agency looming in the near future, the Leafs, should they stay healthy, can only improve.
Upon closer inspection, the risks that Burke took do seem far more measured than he was given credit for. If the Kessel deal constituted the last deal that the Maple Leafs could make for the next five years, then, yes, in that context (which is the context that this whole scenario has been put in), the Leafs come out major losers.
The truth is that the Leafs will likely come out of this deal with the only real damage being done to Burke's credentials— even that would be overlooking a hell of a lot.