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After years of the Phil Kessel debate—and doubt—will Tyler Seguin show himself in these playoffs?

Anyone who has followed the recent fortunes of the Maple Leafs knows that one of the larger story lines following the blue and white around these past few years has been, of course, “the Phil Kessel” trade.  While some fans are tired of talking about it, one thing is clear:  it was  Brian Burke’s demarcation point, in a sense, his public statement that, in addition to not wanting to wait for “a five year-rebuild”, he had every intention of showing everyone he meant business in trying to build a winning team.

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.

Over the years, I‘ve seen even all-time greats including Bobby Hull (left) limited and held in check at playoff time by superb checkers like Montreal’s Claude Provost, Toronto’s Ronnie Ellis and even Detroit’s mid—‘60s super-pest, “Bugsy” Watson.  I know things are done differently now when it comes to trying to shut down the superstars forwards.  It’s not usually one player who “shadows” the player opposite him all night long.  But the principle is the same.  It may be a match-up against a particular defense pairing, but the most dangerous players receive the yeoman’s share of the other team’s attention. It has always been thus. In these playoffs, for the first time in his prolific NHL life, the Toronto winger will be guarded more closely than he ever has been in his young career, I suspect.

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....

  • 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...)


  1. Kessel has been backchecking effectively recently, along with playmaking and scoring. I don't know what else Leaf fans can expect. Top ten two years in a row!
    I wish we'd have a game against the Bruins where Kessel scored three goals on Rask while Seguin and Hamilton are held pointless. Then maybe the fans could let "the trade" go.

  2. I'm interested to see what Seguin contributes this spring in the playoffs, Gerund O'. He is now a "young veteran". And will he go on to a solid career, or a superstar career?

  3. Kessel might be able to finally silence his critics, as the Leafs will face the Bruins in the first round.

    If he disappears against Boston like he has in the past, the critics will grow louder.

    This might work out well for Phil, as Boston is slumping.

  4. True, DP- and folks like me will be focussing on Seguin, too!

  5. So much for the montreal-toronto series that we all were expecting.

    Now we have to hear "thank you kessel" in the first game first shift - how Kessel responds to try and shut-up the boo-birds in the 1st two games in boston - is gonna dictate a lot about how this series plays out. And if Kessel can lead the leafs to the promise land of beating the bruins in a playoff series - he will be endeared by a lotta folks down on him right now.

    Reimer will also need to be his best and this defense better remember what got them into the playoffs - defensive hockey with smart offensive plays.

    This will be an epic series - that is for sure - how long will the leafs 12-13 playoffs be - lets hope more than 4 games.


    Anon from Scarborough.

  6. I was expecting (hoping for?) Habs-Leafs as well, Scarborough Anon. But this may be a tremendous series. Lots of obvious sub-plots. As I've said here before, Boston has been far from unbeatable this season...

  7. Yea, well one way to still have a habs-leafs series:

    Pens win series; Habs win series; leafs win; and Rangers win (This has some chance of happening)

    or another way:

    Habs-leafs conference final (highly unlikely)

    Oh yeah - in tonight's loss the bruins played - very similar to the leafs last night (except the bruins had a lotta shots) - so this series could be long as well - if both continue the poor play into the series - then the best goalie wins.

    Anon from Scarborough

  8. This is the series I wanted to see. To beat Boston would be the real proof that this team has arrived. This is the ultimate test for a lot of Leaf players. Can Kessel exocise his Boston demons? Can Phanuef defend for seven games after being targeted by Lucic and company game after game? Can Reimer stop the top guys from Boston scoring? Can Kessel and Bozak outplay the best defensive centerman in the game today, Bergeron let alone go up against Chara night after night?

    As for the trade this is Kessel's moment. He has been a much better all around talent and I would dare say an elite talent something I wasn't willing to say even last year. To me me elite means doing it year after year and it has now been two straight top ten fininshes for Phil. Five years from now the trade might look worse if the Leafs don't have sustained success and Hamilton is winning the Norris and Seguin is a 100 point guy. I still think it is too early to say who won the trade as I think all guys need to have five years in the NHL under their belt before a definte judgement can be made on how good they will be. Two years from now Seguin could well be an offensive juggernaut espicially if the Bruins go to a more offensively minded coach rather than the defensive Julien. A year from now Kessel could very well no longer be a Leaf at all depending on how his contract plays out. I think in 2-3 years we'll know much better who won and who lost. At least to my eyes it no longer seems like a giant win for Boston and much closer to a wash. This series could go along way to finally putting the trade to rest. If Seguin outplays Kessel the boo birds could be out in force. Let's not forget Seguin seems to have some pretty good games against the Leafs. Head to head I think Seguin has outscored Kessel.

    Oh well playoffs are where legends are made. It's on Kessel now.

  9. The hot topic in toronto returns.
    First, a thought about how Burke couldn't have known the Leafs would be that bad. I think he should have known. Isn't that his job? He has to know what his team is capable of and look at them in a down to earth way.
    About the series: I don't think the Leafs, or Kessel have gotten the Bruins out of their heads yet. We can and have beaten the Bruins this year, but the psychological factor is too strong.
    As for Seguin and Kessel, to me Phil is hands down the best player of the two. Kessel for Seguin straight up, I think the Leafs clearly won. Seguin plays for a very good team and that shows in his +/-. Put Kessel on the Hawks or Pens and he is Rocket Richard trophy candidate. Seguin can't score like Kessel and can't pass like Kessel. He will not be elite. In some ways he is Boston's Tyler Bozak. He does a lot of things well, but won't reach the elite level. The reason he is so talked about is because we Leafs fans need to analyse the trade and beat it to death.

    Can't wait for the playoffs to get started. What I'm not looking forward to is the NESN broadcast team I'll have to listen to here in Portugal. The "homerism" is horible, give me Joe Bowen anytime.

    1. Interesting perspective on Seguin, portuguese leaf. This is what I'm talking about. Will Seguin be more than a good NHL player? Yes, it's early and we need to see him over the next few years, but I think we will begin to make that assessment in these playoffs....

    2. Hey,

      if u don't mind watching on a computer then u can try watching the game through the following website:

      it has all the available broadcasters - so it will have both CBC and CNBC livestream broadcast.

      Hope this helps - unfortunately there is no Joe Bowen on TV - but he will be commenting of the radio broadcast for TSN 1050 station in Toronto - for which I am sure you can find a live radio stream online.

      Anon from Scarborough.

    3. Thanks Scarborough Anon! A lot of Leaf fans would love to hear Bob Cole for this one...

    4. portuguese leaf.

      Can I ask you something and I really want you to honestly answer it. In fact to every single person that dislike the Kessel trade.

      Roll back to the date of the trade. Did you seriously think it was a bad trade?

      Although I thought myself Burke overpaid with the second 1st, it was a risk that I thought was reasonable. If anyone have the opportunity to review the thoughts of the day, no expert, no arm chair GM or anyone with any knowledge in the NHL would have predicted a second overall pick. It was unforseen. That said, as I've said post many times here, the Leafs lost on the trade overall but got a pretty damn good player return. A first line player that can play on any team in the NHL.

    5. I'll let portuguese leaf respond if he drops back by, Lukas...

    6. Hey there Lukas.

      It's good we can trade opinions here with each other and not only with Mr. Langlois - no disrespect whatsoever, Michael, this is the only blog I comment on, really love the way it's put together and how you treat us.

      I do not dislike the Kessel trade. As you can read in my comment I think Kessel is a better player than Seguin. I'm not sure how you got the idea I thought we lost the trade.

      However, as I said, Kessel for Seguin straight up we won. Throw in Hamilton and (Knight is it?) the price is a little steep. That beeing said, because Kessel is the best player of the three (as everyone says that the team who gets the best player wins the trade), Leafs win.

      I have said here before, Kessel is the only player on the Leafs that can play on any other team's first line. Seguin, Hamilton and Knight cannot.

    7. Hey portuguese leaf.

      I must have misread your point of view. My apology. I get bothered when I hear the what ifs and retroactive reviews. As my post below it was not a SEGUIN, HAMILTON and KNIGHT for Kessel deal. It was 2 firsts and a second for KESSEL and no one saw it. There was no warm bodies to base any of it on and even at what position these picks were so I get a little perturbed by the continual talk about the Kessel baggage every time that it clearly cloud my perception of your post...;)

  10. All fair points Willbur. (Agreed on the five years, by the way.) I guess what I'm really talking about today is this: For many, the assumption has been that Seguin will become a superstar and thus the Leafs missed out on that. I think now is when we begin to see if he is more than, as I said in the post, a nice NHL player and is actually a real difference-maker.

    When I started the post a Leaf-Boston series was not in my mind. I was just thinking in broad terms about how Seguin will play when it matters on a Boston team that is no longer the power that it was when he arrived.

    Will be interesting...

    1. Oh I thnk Seguin will be a superstar in this league. He just fininshed his third year on a defense first coached team. One where the whole lineup was challenged to score. I think back to Tavares, first 3-4 years I thought he's good but not a superstar. Then his fifth year comes along and now he is getting Hart trophy love. If the Bruins loose this series I could see Julien getting fired. Hire a more offensive minded coach and a couple years of maturity to Seguin and he could be ready to take the big leap.

    2. This is one of the fun things about being a fan and having a rooting interest: we can debate these things forever. Some don't like to, but for me, trades remain one of the things in sports that allow for hindsight and enjoyable "Monday Morning Quarterbacking". GM's don't have that benefit, of course.

      I agree, it will take years to see if anyone "won" the trade. It may simply end up as two organizations that benefitted significantly. As you say, Kessel could also fly the coop. Who knows at this point? Thanks Willbur.

  11. I was very uneasy with “the trade” from the get-go, something I have been vocal about on VLM. Seguin, unlike Kessel, was my kind of player, an intelligent, creative, two-way player who seems to elevate his game at critical moments. Hamilton seemed like an outrageous gift, like throwing in a BMW for no reason after you had already handed over the title to the farm. Kessel’s zippity-do-dah rushes that often led to nothing soon bored me and his lethargic backcheck was like an annoying rash that would not go away. How Boston seemed to neutralize Kessel with such ease left me with the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as when the trade was announced.

    However, over time I have developed a greater respect and fondness for Kessel, a change in perspective that has more to do with his evolution as a player than any softening on my part. His talent level has remained the same, however his creativity has increased markedly as has his interest in defensive play. These improvements narrowed the gap in what once appeared to me to be a lopsided trade to one in which the jury is out.

    The jury will soon be in however, and we will soon have a better sense of the ramifications of “the trade”. I have to say that Seguin’s ability to elevate his game and succeed in key moments worries me. I haven’t seen an equivalent aptitude from Kessel, at least to date. Then again, this is what the playoffs are about, winners and losers and changing perceptions. If the stars line up, and the desire is there, Kessel could put the debate to rest for the time being, at least.

    1. I well recall your "trade" related posts vis-a-vis Kessel here, Bobby C.. The BMW reference has long felt like an apt, one, for sure.

      That said, as you note (and this is what my post today was really getting at), it may well be time to re-assess where we're at as Leaf supporters when it comes to the deal. Of course it's "history" and nothing can be done about it now. But that's not the point. The reality in pro sports is that outcomes matter, results matter, and trades lead inevitably to positive or negative outcomes and results.

      As you quite properly allude to, the playoffs, ultimately, is what it's all about when it comes to assessing how this trade will be viewed through the eyes of history. The Bruins already have their one Cup with Seguin, though he was a relatively lesser figure (albeit crucial at times, as I noted above) as a rookie in that Cup year.

      Now, completing his third season, eyes will be on Seguin- just as we will be watching Kessel to see how he handles a match-up with the Bruins.

      History will be written over the next ten days. It won't be a final assessment, of course, more of a "mid-term" grade. Both have many years in front of them to enhance or change perceptions. But Leaf fans will no doubt remember this series for its outcome- and for Kessel/Seguin. Thanks Bobby.

  12. Thanks Anon from Scarborough, I do watch on those streaming sites, but it seems that the americans stream in better quality. It's funny that that we Canadians don't stream OUR game in better quality than the US fans.

    If you or anyone else is interested, this site is better:

  13. Hi Michael,

    Phil will be in immense pressure this series. IF the Leafs wins the series and no doubt it will have the Kessel influence, the chant of from the gardens will subside. If he doesn't perform, the debate will forever go on; the "thank you Kessel" will be deafening and it's hard for Kessel and management not to revisit his future in a Leafs uniform. Many Leafs fans will unfortunately call for him to be traded.

    I am a supporter of Kessel. He has done everything asked of him since the trade. How his playoff performance remains to be seen but you simply cannot ask for more so far at least statistically (+/- can be improved) anyways.

    As a Leafs fan, this series will truly be either a resigning disappointment or the joy of 1993 Detroit series all over again. As much as we like our team, the Leafs are not expected to go beyond this series. The character of this team will be tested, as will the willingness to step up physically. If they do, this will be a series that goes longer than many would expect and the possibility of the Leafs coming out on top would increase greatly. I hope O'Byrne will display his toughness since I really cannot see Carlyle dressing both McClaren and Orr at the same time. Time will tell and after this series,I predict it will also tell where this team will be headed personnel wise

  14. Everyone seems to forget this is not a SEGUIN, HAMILTON and KNIGHT for Kessel deal. It was 2 firsts and a second for KESSEL. No one predicted this. We lost the deal when it comes to down to this retroactive 20/20 decision. That said we got a pretty damn good 1st line player. I just wish everyone would move on.

    1. To be clear, Lukas, when I post about this it is not because I refuse to "move on". For me, assessing trades is simply part of what I do as someone who has followed the sport (and the Leafs) for decades. I well remember the Sawchuk trade, Bathgate,. Duff, Mahovlich, Parent...Sittler...the list goes on. I've always enjoyed debating the pros and cons.

      GM's are, rightfully, judged by a number of criteria- trade outcomes is one of the ways we make that assessment. It goes with the territory.

      A fan can appreciate Kessel as a player, in my view, and still be willing to acknowledge that it was a deal that comes with question marks. Burke was supposed to be a great judge of talent and should have known he had a bad team. That said, he also stressed many times that he knew the deal could cost him someone like Seguin, and he would do it again anyway. And that's fine.

      But it's also fine that he be judged- positively or negatively. If people don't want to discuss the deal, that's fine. But for me, it's a fair point for discussion. And it's not a knock on Kessel to have that debate.

      Thanks Lukas.

    2. Thanks Michael

      I understand what you're saying and it is always good fodder for debate. To me, the whole discussion on unknown picks for a known player is a tiresome debate that is inherently skewed, particularly when there is a lottery in effect. I would not have so much irk at some of the discussions (not necessary here) had there been bodies for body trade. But to re-hatch the whole thing when even Burke should have admitted his mistake - BTW I don't see how he could possibly truly believe that he would make that trade again (irrelevant that Kessel is better than Sequin at the moment) all but for the protection Kessel or maybe his pride.

      Thanks Michael for hearing me out

    3. Always good to have a respectful discussion, Lukas.

  15. It's tough to assess your question today because such different things are expected of each player. As you say, Seguin can't really be expected to be the leader of the Bruins - they've got plenty of players to fill that role. Can you imagine Seguin as the Captain of the Bruins? I don't think so, to date. To me he's more of a Max Talbot, say - able to score key goals and change a game, but not an "elite", take charge player.
    Slightly off topic, I know, but I asked myself where both teams would be if the trade had never happened. My guess: Kessel is still a top ten scorer two years in a row; Seguin bounces between the second and third line and Hamilton is probably on the third pair of D, sitting some and playing some. Leaf fans would be wishing we could get a scorer like Kessel. And the Bruins would still be favoured to win this series.

    1. Interesting thought, Gerund O'- kind of a "It's a Wonderful Life" perspective, if the trade had never happened! I wonder if Hamilton would be here, or would have played this year in junior hockey? (Assuming, following your scenario, that the Leafs had actually been in a position to draft him....) Thanks Gerund- playoffs ahead.

  16. Well said, Lukas. I think Leaf fans would like to see Phil catch a break and have some success in this series. Yes some of it will be his own determination, but luck almost always plays a role, too. He's been a fine Leaf, and that may well translate at playoff time, when the lights shine brightest. We'll see.

    You invoke 1993, a wonderful memory. Yes, the Leafs will need some physicality against the Bruins, especially if, as you say, they do not use both Orr and MacLaren. O'Byrne may fit that bill. Thanks Lukas- let's chat during the playoffs.