As annoying as it is for some Leaf fans, the “Kessel discussion”—as it relates to how and when he was acquired—will long be a topic of discussion and debate in these parts. That’s just the way it is for a lot of sports fans. Part of the enjoyment of being a fan is playing arm-chair General Manager and anticipating moves that could be made—while also assessing the deals that are made after the fact. It has always been thus.
Heck, when it comes t the Maple Leafs, I still talk about the Red Kelly trade (1960), the deal involving Frank Mahovlich (1968), Bernie Parent (1971 to get him and, sadly, 1973 to give his rights away) and of course the Dan Maloney/Errol Thompson transaction (1978). That doesn’t even take into account the massive Doug Gilmour deal in the early 90s, still the subject of great affection and warm memories in Leaf world.
Bottom line, fans love to debate trades, and analyze them forever. And to me, that’s always going to be part of the fun in being a fan.
But my focus today is not of trying to, yet again, assess who is doing better, temporarily, on a deal that we won’t be able to assess fully and fairly for many years. Kessel has delivered (at a cost, to be sure) precisely what Burke desperately wanted three years ago: a big splash, a jolt, a young player with proven skills and flash—and a guy who can score 30 or more goals a season without breaking too much of a sweat, it seems.
Kessel has, without question, helped to make the Leafs a better team. (And yes, not many people, including Burke and company, figured the cost would be Seguin…but that’s not the issue today.)
No, my question for today is: what kind of playoff performer will the young Leaf winger be? Whether the Leafs make it this year or next, that simple question will become a pivotal one in the years ahead, as we judge just where the Leafs will rank among serious "contenders".
Oh, I know we have a bit of history to go on, as in Kessel's performance with the Bruins a few years ago. (His numbers were very good, in the context of playoff competition—a point a game over three playoff series covering two seasons, and a plus 8 overall, including being a plus 7 in the spring of 2009…) But some context is needed here. Not to discount his contribution, but he was not a front-line player for the Bruins as a 20 and 21 year old. With the Leafs, now going on 25, he is a first-liner, the “go-to” guy who the Leafs need—and expect—to score big goals at crucial times.
Should the Leafs earn their first playoff berth since 2004 this coming April, whoever their opposition is will be focused on many things (negating Toronto’s team speed, etc.) but first and foremost one of their jobs will be to try and limit Kessel’s time and space, as we like to say in the modern hockey jargon. However teams plan to do this, the intent will be to take him out of his speed game. When Kessel and Lupul (and Bozak) have free ice, they run the show with their speed and ability to make quick, smart and instinctive high-tempo plays.
But will that space be there come playoff time? How will Kessel perform with a bulls-eye on his back? Will he be able to withstand, first of all, the much more physical play he will encounter? Will he be willing and able to get near the net? Will his perimeter game, so successful in a less congested regular-season environment, be enough to win the day in a playoff setting?
I wonder. Heck, Bobby Hull (seen in his early NHL days at left, circa 1960), one of the fastest, most powerful and best wingers of all time would struggle in the playoffs when he was “shadowed”, as we used to call it in the good old days. Claude Provost had great success sticking with/near Hull and shutting him down come playoff time whenever the Habs would take on the Hawks. Bryan “Bugsy” Watson (then a marginal bit player with the Red Wings) became famous in the mid-1960s for being a “pest”, specifically in regard to how he stuck like glue to the Chicago speedster. Toronto’s Ronnie Ellis usually drew the assignment of covering Hull, though he wasn’t as annoying and dirty (or distracting) as Watson or quite as smothering as Provost, or even Boston’s Eddie Westfall (who had the Hull assignment when the Bruins faced the Hawks in the regular season…).
My point is simply this: we all know that playoff hockey is different. And given that the NHL has become the NPL of late—the “no penalties league”—the Leafs may not be able to count on their man-advantage power-play opportunities to bolster the offense come springtime playoff hockey. They may have to make it happen five-on-five. And if that is the case, can Kessel be “the guy”, the player who fights through traffic and physical checking, to be a big-time difference-maker?
What do you think?