And he did. The trade immediately brought Toronto a gifted offensive player, one who had battled cancer, who had had his ups and down with Boston coach Claude Julien—and a player who the Bruins were prepared to deal (evidently for a host of reasons) despite his promise and youth.
They had determined, it seemed, that Kessel was not indispensable, that they could win without his speed and talent and "potential". And they did, of course, win a Cup in the spring of 2011.
Since arriving on the scene here, however, he has been as advertised: a gifted offensive player, who many thought was one-dimensional even within his “one dimension”. That is, he was thought to be a pure goal scorer only, and a streaky one at that. He was fast and could score, it was said, but was not a great playmaker. It was always, in the minds of critics, “shoot-first” Phil.
He remains the classic definition of a “streaky” scorer, yes, though VLM readers know my views on this one: to me, Kessel plays much the same almost every night. When the puck goes in, he’s a hero. When it doesn’t, he’s seen to be in a “slump”. It’s a matter of inches, not performance, a lot of the time.
But we have seen here in Toronto that his gift (one that he obviously always had) is not necessarily fully one-dimensional. He can finish, sure, but he can also see the ice, find open teammates and make sweet passes—all the things that make players special in the offensive zone. He is especially dangerous when he flies in on his off-wing, a high-speed threat who can cut across the middle of the ice on his forehand and keeps goaltenders guessing.
His reputation for not back-checking enough, for not being gritty enough, for not going into the corner or the front of the net is, yes, still with him to a certain extent. The upcoming playoffs may help demonstrate (assuming he remains healthy and he can be “judged” fairly) if he is indeed the somewhat more “complete” player some Leaf supporters and hockey analysts already believe he has become.
From my perch, he has matured, no doubt. At this point in his career (and time with the Leafs), I just want to see him fight through the attention that a top-flight, first-line player traditionally gets in the playoffs, and then I will be happy to go to that next level in trying to assess what he is, at this moment, as an evolving star in the NHL. (One playoff in Toronto will not define him, but it may give us some insight into what his true ceiling could well be as a an impact player when it really matters...)
The bottom line is that many Leaf fans are quite happy we made the deal, even though this week will be the first occasion we will be able to see the fruits of that deal actually performing when hockey matters most, in the playoffs. For many, they love Kessel’s play enough that it was worth the wait, full stop.
We all know what the deal “cost” the Maple Leafs. I won’t go through all the nuances that led to what happened, but part of the “back story” has always been that Burke supposedly could not possibly know the Leafs would be that bad, so he should not be blamed for the Leafs giving up as much as they eventually had to.
Regardless of whether you believe a GM of his supposed ability to assess talent (and rosters) should have been so wrong, that’s beside the point now, I guess, to a certain extent. We know the outcome was highly-drafted players: Tyler Seguin and young Doug Hamilton. And in the four seasons since the deal was completed, while Kessel has thrived in Toronto, Seguin has experienced his own rather interesting development arc in Beantown.
He played sparingly at times in his first season, but ‘helped’ the Bruins on the way to their Cup triumph. I highlight the word ‘helped’ because his role was, in truth, fairly limited most of the time. He played only 13 playoff games in the Cup run in the spring of 2011, though I recall his having a couple of break-out offensive moments that helped the Bruins work through some tough slogging (in I believe the second round or so). His playoff 7 points as a 19 year-old (with a plus 5 rating) was not bad at all.
Speaking of break-outs, he tuned up his game last season (mind you, on a very good line, though he was certainly part of making it a very good line), with 67 points as a sophomore center in the league. That’s pretty good. And remarkably, he was a plus 34 on the year.
The Bruins, as we know, fell victim to the Stanley Cup hangover last April—and Dale Hunter’s coaching behind the Washington bench, as Seguin managed only 3 points (but a plus 3 rating) in 7 playoff games. He was not the reason the Bruins lost, but neither did he grab them by the throat and lead them to victory—not that we we should have expected that from him on a team with the likes of Tim Thomas, Chara, Bergeron, Lucic, Seidenberg, Marchand and many other more experienced veterans.
This brings me, though, to the present. And that is to say, part of the Kessel-Seguin post-mortem has been that the Leafs gave up so, so much, and yes, we surely did. It does appear as though Hamilton can play in this league. As a 19-year old rookie defenseman, he was good at times this season and he struggled at others, not surprisingly.
But the guy I’m talking about today is Seguin. That’s the name that will be, fair or not, forever linked with that of Kessel.
He is younger than Kessel, yes. But if we are, now four full seasons after the trade, going to assess the deal with updated eyesight and perspective, we can’t just spin the same old video. We have to look and watch and say: we know what we have in Kessel. He is maybe just this moment in time entering his hockey ‘prime’, that time when he still has his speed, vision, smarts, health—and presumably, desire. (We’ll be able, perhaps, to talk more conclusively about his desire when we look back on the 2012-2013 playoffs…) He is an experienced player now. He may have more upside yet.
He will never be a power-forward in the conventional sense of being a Lucic-style bruiser, but maybe there is another dimension that will be revealed in these playoffs, or in the years to come. Right now, we don’t honestly know. We only “know” what we see, now.
But there is another question we may need to ask: what about Seguin? The Bruins have been, well, medicore most of this truncated NHL season—at least by their recent standards. Seguin himself has been….OK. In fairness, better than that. I’ll say “pretty good”.
But he is not scoring at a point a game. He is a plus 23, and that should never be ignored. He is generally a defensively reliable player that Julien can count on. But is he still the superstar-in-waiting that many pundits (and many of us as Leaf fans) thought he would be by now, a player drafted second overall?
Again, I well recognize the young man is only 21 years of age. At 21, Kessel was also coming off three impressive offensive years in Boston, and put up nice playoff numbers as a non-“go-to” player for the Bruins at the time. Seguin’s upside may be immense.
But I simply pose the question: is it possible, just possible, that Seguin will simply settle in as a “nice” player in Boston. A very good second-line center, with some first-line attributes. Like Kessel, he is not a ferocious player, is not going to engage in fisticuffs or hammer guys along the boards or open ice very often. He is a quick, smart, smooth player whose assets include his ability to think the game and be a step ahead more often than not. He has played on an outstanding team, one of the best in the league. And he has been protected and surrounded by rugged performers during his early years in Boston. He has been an effective player.
But does that equate to superstar, and does that make this, in current terms, a lopsided trade in favour of the Bruins, when you throw Hamilton into the mix?
I think how each team—and each player—does over the enxt three years will obviouslty tell a tale.
I mentioned above that we will be watching Kessel closely in the playoffs, for all the reasons that we always watch the best players. They’re exciting, fun to watch—and they draw the most attention from the opposition. The checking is tighter. The open ice is harder to find. Most years, against most teams in most playoff series, the stars have to want it a lot to succeed—and help their team win.
For me, though, the question now is not just whether Phil Kessel can “prove’ himself at playoff time. For me, it’s even more intriguing than that. I’ll be watching Tyler Seguin as well. Because he, too, has something to prove. (By the way, this column was drafted Sunday just before the Ottawa-Boston game, when it still looked as though the Leafs would draw the Habs in the first round. The Bruin-Leaf match-up will make it easier to follow the principals in today’s post all the more closely in the days ahead…)
My guess is, whatever happens this spring, this is a movie that will have sequels in the years to come.
Some recent VLM posts you may not have seen....
Some recent VLM posts you may not have seen....
- A link to a guest list from the "Leaf Matters" podcast
- A special interview I did for VLM in the early days of this site, with legendary hockey writer Red Fisher, long of the Montreal Gazette. (Red declines most interviews, but did this one with me. If you want to get into the mood for playoff hockey, and a Hab-Leaf match-up, this will do it...)
- Leaf playoff ticket prices: fair or not?
- Good teams are always bailed out by great goaltending, it's not just the Leafs
- The Leafs' smartest player....
- Maple Leaf memories and memorabilia, to help get us ready for the playoffs