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Ex-Leaf Kessel misses out on Team U.S.A. nod, but he and the Pens have a shot at the Stanley Cup…

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?


  1. When Kessel was traded Bob McKenzie nailed it. He said the Pens was the perfect team for him to go to as he won't be THE guy. Sid is.. and Geno..and Letang..and Fleury so he won't be grilled every day like he was in Leaf land from the MSM and bloggers. Also, he won't necessarily be up against the top pairing Dmen either and that is pretty much exactly how it has turned out. Phil did not succeed on a line with Sid or Geno this season but he really found chemistry with Bonino. A lot of that is Phil's talent but it is also because of the above.

    I was on the Sharks band wagon last round and will be again. I really would like to see Big Joe lift the cup. He deserves one in my mind.

    1. All good points regarding Kessel and the very different setting he finds himself in. More realistic expectations, etc.

      Like you, I think a lot of people would like to see San Jose make it, Pep. They've been a good team for years.

  2. I am very happy for Kessel and am enthusiastically rooting for the Penguins this year. Though I would be remiss not to mention that another of my favourites (and yours), James Reimer, is also present in the finals, I am going with Kessel. Reimer simply is not going to see the ice and has no chance of being a factor this year. I still bet he's much happier where he is than on the golf course, however.
    So as fans, we are getting excited as we envision Matthews, Marner, Nylander et al leading the team in to the future, yet at the same time there is still a bad taste left in our mouths from the meandering visions of Burke and Nonis. Maybe that will last as long as we are still seeing the Leafs pay out $1.2 million of Kessel's salary for the next several years. But for all the media and fans who vilified Kessel, constantly put the strain on the back of a guy for things that were beyond his control (the trade with Boston), giving him a hard time for being what we knew he was all along (a flashy offensive player with limited defensive skill and next to zero leadership ability), here we are. Look at the smile on his face now. He's having a great time fitting where he belongs in the lineup. What a kick in the crotch to the failed regimes here in Toronto if he wins the Conn Smyth Trophy, which he very well could. When I watch Phil Kessel hoist the Stanley Cup this year, I will be smiling. Then I will look ahead to the draft, free agency, and just how the pieces will fall in to place for the Leafs next year.

    1. I enjoyed your post, as always, Pete.

      No question the Leafs have some intriguing young players, as you cite, who should have a big impact on the team's fortunes in the years ahead. But like you, I can't help but kind of follow what the Penguins are doing. (I'm with you on Reimer; one of my favourite Leafs in recent years. Likely won't play this series, but he won some big games for San Jose during the regular season...)

  3. Hello Michael,

    If Kessel and the Penguins were playing just about any other Western Conference team, I would be pulling for them.

    But with Reimer on the Sharks, I have to pull for him to win the Cup, even though he is playing a limited role as the back-up.

    Reading your article, it got me thinking about the trade which brought Kessel to Toronto.

    As we all know, hindsight is always 20/20.

    But to my mind, Kessel's current situation with Pittsburgh shows just how completely off-base Brian Burke's assessment was of where the Leafs were competitively and what kind of player Kessel was.

    As has been proven out with his time in Toronto and now Pittsburgh, Kessel is the kind of periphery piece you add AFTER you have your main core in place.

    The fact Burke thought Kessel was the kind of player that should form a key component of your core and that the the Leafs had a core that could compete for a Cup is now mind-boggling.

    Even though Kessel was the round peg trying to be shoe-horned into the square hole (both in Toronto and initially in Pittsburgh) with 1st or 2nd line duties, he is currently proving that on a 3rd line, he is a able to feast on the 5/6 D-pair of the opposing teams.

    As I feel he is the more likely of the two (him vs. Reimer) to get back to a Cup final before his career is over, I am dis-inclined to acquiesce to a request to root for Kessel.


  4. Hi Wayne- I think we can all appreciate that Kessel was a player who could help any team offensively at the time (and still now). But as you mentioned, the issue was likely in management, at the time of the trade, thinking he could/would be "the guy". He was the Leafs best offensive player for years, for sure, but the Leafs would have needed to build a different team around him.
    We (the Leafs) are where we are.

    As I mentioned to Pete, I'm a Reimer guy, too, so I've been following both teams in the playoffs. Thanks Wayne.

  5. i couldn't be happier for mr. kessel! here's an introverted guy who might not look like an adonis, but he's got all of the talent. while i lack the talent myself, i feel like i would have the same inability to handle the constant media-attention in toronto and the grueling workouts of these athletes; so i empathize with phil!

    honestly, pittsburgh owes toronto one... down the line when the pens are no longer a major competitor and the leafs are at the top, they better be ready to at the least give us a rental to help make the push in the playoffs! (that said, i'm not very familiar with the young d-man we received in exchange for kessel, so maybe he'll work out well for the leafs).

    thanks for the entry michael. looking forward to reading more soon!

    1. I like your "they owe us one" notion, Alex. We'll see if the Penguins feel similarly down the road!

  6. Hi Michael, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about who wins the cup this year... I keep hoping for good games, so when the Sharks are behind in the game, I hope they pot one... However, despite liking Polak and Spaling 'enough' I have been hoping for Reimer to come in and pull off a miracle, yet Jones has been solid and I wouldn't hope for an injury, so that's not likely to happen now!

    On the other hand, I'm finding myself hoping for Kessel to do well (if for no other reason than to bring 'crow' to the table for the 'eating' by those sports writers who seemed to bring all our focus upon his deficiencies (apparent or promulgated) into bold relief whenever a story was needed. Phil has been playing well and effectively, yet I actually expected his motivation to be like this in the playoffs (I think he is more engaged when winning matters more).

    When you briefly mentioned Marner, I've been thinking of asking your opinion on an idea I've been pondering... We all 'know' he's kind of outgrown the CHL and may not benefit from another year in that context, yet he seems a bit short of the size that may be best for him in the NHL (with the AHL not being an option). What if we 'platoon' him for 75% home games (and a smattering of road experiences) so that he plays between 30 - 40 NHL games, while emphasizing a training regimen that will benefit him (& the team) in the long run, while protecting him as he continues to grow.

    He could still go to the World Juniors and we could delay his Free Agency by another year while patiently developing him, yet rewarding him with higher NHL pay. Haven't seen this suggestion anywhere and it strikes me we could do something similar with Lupul in order to ensure he gets another 24 games to qualify for exposure in the expansion draft (since he doesn't appear to have much of a place in our future plans). Perhaps a TDL deal or the draft could give him another kick at the can... what think ye?

    1. I do think it will be important for the Leafs to work with Marner in the right way. I'm not expert enough to know exactly what that is (every young player is different), but hopefully they find the right balance. He does seem to have "outgrown" the junior game and another year at that level won't likely help his development. While we have all seen 18 and 19 year-old players do well in the NHL, we've also seen countless youngsters rushed into prominent roles too soon. It doesn't always hurt their long-term development, but it can.

      Your suggestion is an interesting one. Unfortunately, teams always seem to be in a hurry. Kids often look great at camp right off the hop and teams plug them into the lineup. I just don't want to see the Kadri "yo-yo" thing again this time, where he ended up going back and forth to the Marlies. I guess it worked out fine, but it sure seems as though we went through a lot to get here. Thanks, InTimefor62.