Many Leaf fans are no doubt more interested in the upcoming NHL entry draft than the Stanley Cup finals that start this week, but I can’t help but be tugged to follow the San Jose-Pittsburgh series given the presence of former Leaf winger Phil Kessel.
I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about the former Leafs who were still active in the current NHL playoffs. There were some awfully good players who made it to the "final four", including Alex Steen of the Blues. (And Steve Spott, the former Leaf coach, is now a top assistant with the Sharks.)
But the biggest ex-Leaf name in the playoffs this year is no doubt Kessel's.
We all know about Phil's time here: it started with the much-debated trade with the Bruins. Many words have been written (including here) about whether that deal was going to end up being a good one for the Leafs.
Most Leaf supporters would agree that Kessel was a dynamic offensive presence with the blue and white. Who knows how well appreciated he may have been if the Leafs had a stronger team while he was here and made it to the playoffs on a regular basis while? And would he have earned more fan support if he had been perceived as a dedicated two-way "team" player?
Unfortunately, and perhaps at times unfairly, Kessel was a lightning rod in this market. Unquestionably skillful, he was sometimes seen as a player who did not give his all. Again, whether that assessment was fair or not may have been pretty subjective.
It caught my eye a few days ago that he was not chosen to represent Team U.S.A. for the upcoming World Cup. This, despite his strong play for Pittsburgh in the playoffs so far. Did the fact that he sometimes has declined opportunities to play for his country in the past (e.g. in a number of World Championships) work against him? Or were the decision-makers looking for more of an all-around player?
Regardless, the Leafs have moved on, as has Kessel. Toronto is a very different team now, or at least they soon will be, from the one Kessel was part of. The Leafs will be a young squad, built around Marner (whose London Knights just captured the Memorial Cup, after he was named the Canadian junior player of the year), Nylander and this summer’s first overall pick.
But my question goes back to Kessel: as you reflect on his time in Toronto, are you hoping he and the Penguins have success in the playoffs?
I’d like to see him (and Crosby) do well, but I’d also like to see guys like Marleau and Thornton win a championship before they retire. (And of course Reimer was a personal favourite during his years with the Leafs, though he has played only a few minutes in the first three rounds for the Sharks.)
Who are you rooting for?