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Let’s make sure Phil Kessel doesn’t become the Leafs’ next Mike Walton

The thing that has made the Kessel trade so much fun, on so many levels, is that it has created a tremendous amount of debate and discussion.  Isn’t that what being a sports fan is partly “about”?

Both teams got big-name players or big-time prospects.  From the moment the trade was made with Boston, Kessel has been a catalyst for water-cooler conversation.  Here are just some of the "talking points" from those who loved—or hated—the deal from the Leafs’ perspective.

  • The Leafs gave up too much (what turned out to be Tyler Seguin and young stud defenseman Doug Hamilton and second rounder Jared Knight) for Kessel.

  • The Leafs made out great.  They got a young 21-year old star who has (now) scored 30 or more goals three times already in his short NHL career.  And he’s still only 23.

  • Kessel will be a great offensive player for many years.  Who cares that the Leafs gave up prospects with "potential"?  Kessel was exactly what the goal-starved Leafs needed- and still need.

  • Burke “made up” for it all anyway, when he acquired two former first-rounders for an apparently over-the-hill Kaberle, who didn’t fit in Toronto going forward.

  • Kessel will never produce the way he can until the Leafs acquire a legitimate high-end center to play with him.

  • Let’s stop talking about the Kessel trade.  It’s over and done.
Those are just some of the discussion points, for and against.

My view?  First of all, I enjoy the debate.  And Kessel has indeed provided what the Leafs didn’t have, a legitimate sniper who has the potential to score 40 plus goals— with the right linemates.

Yes he goes through extended periods when the puck’s not going in, but as long as the effort is there, then we’re talking about inches and bad or good luck, not what kind of player he is.

Now, I will say that Kessel does have that coach-killer feel about him (Claude Julien won’t say it, but Kessel wasn’t his kind of player). Unfair?  Maybe, but I’m guessing Ron Wilson also doesn’t love Kessel’s tendency to expend less than one hundred per cent some nights, and on some shifts.  Or play as well as he should in his own zone. (We all well recall their little public spat last season—you know, the one that ended when Brian Burke reminded Phil in no uncertain terms that he was in fact happy in Toronto.  From that moment on, Phil talked happy...)

Case closed.

Anyway, to me Kessel is what he is.  A talented, speedy guy with tons of skill and not so much grit.

Will he ever become a great all-around forward, like Yzerman and Modano eventually did before him?  It’s still early.  The jury is out on that one.

Will he be a leader?  I very much doubt that’s in him, but we’ll see. 

Can he produce under the glare (and the tight-checking) of the playoff spotlight?  Maybe not, but we really can’t know yet.  His sample size opportunity in Boston was too small for us to assess accurately.  Plus, he is still maturing as a person and as a player.

But here’s what I’m hoping won’t happen.  The Leafs (or Kessel himself) grow frustrated and kill the ongoing “experiment”.

That happened to the Leafs back during the 1970-’71 season.  The most talented guy in the Leaf line-up in the late ‘60s when Mike “Shakey” Walton (seen in action at right, along with goaltender Bruce Gamble, in another of those great Harold Barkley photos).  Like Kessel, the guy could flat out fly.  He was the fastest guy on the team, and there were some guys, like Keon, who could skate a little.

Walton was a center who also played the point on the power play.  He played some important minutes as a 22-year old during Toronto’s Cup run in the spring of 1967.  In fact, he scored 4 playoff goals in only 12 games.

He then had a 30-goal season with the Leafs, but like his earlier teammate, Frank Mahovlich, was a complex, intelligent, sensitive young man.  Walton hated playing for the sometimes egocentric and tyrannical Punch Imlach, and while the new coach and GM combo of Johnny McLellan and Jim Gregory was much more player-friendly, Walton was never really relaxed and happy in Toronto, it seemed.

The pressure got to him and he walked out on the team, demanding a trade through his agent, Alan Eagleson.  Walton was ultimately dealt to the high-flying, super-talented Boston Bruins in the middle of the 1970-’71 season.  (The Leafs acquired Bernie Parent from Philadelphia as part of a three-way deal, which made me the happiest hockey fan in the world at the time.  You can click on the link here to read more…)

Walton went on to play very well for the Bruins.  In fact, he helped them win a Cup in 1972, netting 12 points in 15 playoff games that spring. 

From there, though, Walton bounced around a lot—three years in the WHA, then back for NHL stints in Boston again as well as in Vancouver, St. Louis and Chicago.  He retired with well over 300 combined regular-season NHL/WHA goals.

Like Kessel, Walton was a one-way player—strictly offense.  But man, he was talented.  Big shot, could make plays but not a corner man, not a physical player and certainly not a leader.

Sound familiar?

The hockey world is very different than it was 40 years ago, of course.  In this media age, Kessel is not a “spotlight” guy off the ice.   And on the ice, he will no doubt be challenged by management here to play to their expectations all over the ice.   But he may also be more effectively nurtured and supported as an individual here in Toronto than Walton was those many years ago.

Still, I wonder sometimes if we may look back some day and call it the failed Kessel “experiment” (as I referred to it above)— if it doesn’t really work out in Toronto.

Again, only time will tell.


  1. On the bright side, he's scored 30+ goals a season without a top center. That's got to be cause for hope. And he's a pretty good playmaker himself, by the way. If he had one more guy (Lupul?) on his line who could score...
    I think we Toronto fans, and the media, are too desperate to find (and too quickly critical of) the Moses that can lead us back to the Promised Land of Playoffs. (Newest candidate: Dion Phaneuf). They're all parts of a greater mosaic, and I'd say both trades have worked out well.

  2. I'm with Gerund- I'm convinced you don't necessarily need a superstar or two to make the promised land. I see the Leafs getting steadily better and better, BB building a more and more competitive and cohesive unit all the time. His fierce desire to win is very infectious, I think, and I can see it in Kessel's growth as a player and human being in the last couple of years. My biggest impression of Kessel was that early, early moment when Tampa's Ohlund ran right through him, and he barely missed a shift-
    So long as he stays in condition, I have no worries about him. He will be a highly dangerous offensive threat for many years to come.