Trading Kessel will represent an opportunity lost

Phil Kessel. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Phil Kessel has always been a little bit misunderstood. So perhaps it should only stand to reason that his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, now very much in question, would come to be viewed that way as well.

There will be no asterisk needed when assessing his contributions in Toronto and pronouncing him one of the best players in franchise history.

For six seasons here, Kessel has been a star — an electrifying pure goal-scorer in an era where the goals dried up around the NHL.

Yet, much too often, the conversation around Phil has focused solely on what he doesn’t do: Be it his reluctance to speak with the media, or the fact he doesn’t score high enough in fitness testing, or that he doesn’t come across as a leader of men.

While those are all valid concerns when trying to evaluate exactly who and what Kessel is as a hockey player, they shouldn't trump the on-ice results.

Kessel has played 420 consecutive games since making his Maple Leafs debut in November 2009. He has been the team's top goal-scorer and point producer for five seasons running, and carried largely poor Toronto squads to a 95-38-17 record in games where he scores at least one goal.

What's more, he has finished inside the top-10 in NHL scoring for three straight years and could become the first Leaf since Harvey "Busher" Jackson in the 1930's to make it four in a row with a strong run down the stretch.

It's quite a resume.

The biggest question it raises to me has nothing to do with fitness and character, but rather: Why have the Leafs failed to surround him with teammates good enough to maximize those prime performing years?

Kessel is 27 now, an age where offensive players have historically already had their most productive NHL season. With Toronto set to get started on a full tear-down and rebuild, it makes sense to see what trade options are out there.

But should they find a willing partner prepared to offer up an adequate return -- no easy task for an $8-million player in a salary-cap system -- the trade will represent an opportunity lost, rather than something gained.

For the entirety of his tenure in Toronto, Kessel has been asked to shoulder too much of the load. Just as Mats Sundin never seemed to have the proper wingers before him, Kessel hasn't lined up beside a true No. 1 centreman.

And yet, despite that obvious disadvantage, he wracked up a whole whack of even-strength points while becoming one of the NHL's most productive players.

Perhaps it is simply the nature of the beast in Toronto, where there are so many voices with so many opinions, that Kessel's brilliance would so routinely be overlooked. This is the kind of market where stars like Jonathan Toews (who has just one career 70-point season) and Drew Doughty (who has five goals this season) would probably be questioned as much as celebrated if they played here.

It's unfortunate, really.

Kessel is far from perfect and currently in an awful slump, with just four goals in his last 25 games. Criticism pertaining to that lack of production and its impact on the team is more than fair. However, the conversation instead turns to whether he is a "coach killer" -- an awfully harsh conclusion to be drawn about any one player.

No wonder Kessel didn’t sound all that upset about the possibility of being traded when he spoke with reporters in Long Island on Thursday night.

To find a proper appreciation for his talents all you have to do is walk into a NHL dressing room -- any one of them -- and speak to his peers.

At some point last year, I asked then-San Jose Sharks forward Adam Burish about Kessel. They both hail from Madison, Wisconsin, and while Burish didn't play against the Leafs star as a kid, they had crossed paths during some scrimmages over the summer.

In fact, Burish remembered the first time they were on the ice together. He recalled how unassuming Kessel looked and briefly wondered "what's the big deal with this guy?" -- just long enough for Kessel to blow right by him with his deceptive speed.

"I honestly don't know how he does it," said Burish.

The lesson was obvious: Kessel should be taken for granted only at your own peril.

It's something the dissenters in Toronto might come to understand if the winger is dealt away -- be it before the March 2 deadline or more likely in the off-season. Perhaps Kessel will eventually land with a
contender and get a chance to chase the Stanley Cup, an achievement that would no doubt change perceptions.

In reality, all he has to be is himself: Because that’s been plenty good enough, even if it hasn’t always been portrayed that way.