Johnston: Leafs get their man as Kessel inks extension

Phil Kessel landed a $64 million deal, and teammate James van Riemsdyk fires an appropriate response.

MONTREAL – There will always be those who look at the numbers involved in a contract like the one Phil Kessel just signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and second-guess its value.

Eight years and $64 million represent a massive commitment in the NHL’s salary cap age. However, let’s for a moment imagine a scenario where Leafs general manager Dave Nonis allowed the season to get going Tuesday without a new extension in place for his best player. How would that be any less risky?

Not only would it guarantee that Kessel’s uncertain future hung over an extremely important season in Toronto – Imagine the speculation at the March 5 trade deadline? – delaying the negotiations also wouldn’t change the fact that this is essentially the going rate for an elite NHL scorer.

In fact, as soon as the Leafs brain trust determined it was comfortable making Kessel a cornerstone member of the franchise, this was a fairly easy set of negotiations. The sides got it done in a matter of days before Kessel’s self-imposed deadline passed with the start of the regular season.

(Believe it or not, the discussions got started when Nonis and Kessel were together for last week’s suspension hearing with the NHL-Kessel mentioned how important it was to him to stay in Toronto.)

Kessel has been a polarizing figure since arriving from Boston in the blockbuster deal orchestrated by former GM Brian Burke. Far from comfortable in front of a crush of cameras, his public persona has often been at odds with the person teammates and friends would describe.

In some corners, there were misconceptions about his commitment and dedication to the game. Many believed him to be aloof or lazy.

“The one knock that Phil had on him, which I think was totally unfair, is that he wasn’t a great teammate,” Nonis said Tuesday afternoon. “From the day he got to Toronto we could tell that was completely untrue.”

Part of what made attending the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in Washington, D.C., this summer so interesting for me was seeing a different side of Kessel. This was him in his element – surrounded by old friends, many of whom helped shed more light on the shy superstar.

Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators spoke of seeing a transformation towards a more competitive two-way game from Kessel, who he has competed against since bantam hockey. And Minnesota Wild defenceman Ryan Suter, who grew up in Madison, Wisc., with Kessel and still takes part in intense summer scrimmages with him, talked about the fire that quietly burns within the Leafs winger.

“It seemed like he didn’t care (when we were young) and it still kind of seems like he’s nonchalant, but inside he competes and cares,” Suter said.

With this monster extension now complete, fans in Toronto are assured of the opportunity to get to know him better. That is a good thing. Of late, Kessel has shown signs of coming out of his shell and he’ll be expected to assume more of a leadership role as the core of this Leafs team grows and develops.

It was his performance in last year’s playoffs that made the decision easier for the Leafs. When the competition got tougher, Kessel elevated his game – against the Boston Bruins, no less – and scored four goals in the seven-game series. As an added bonus: each of those goals came in the third period.

“His desire to win and compete and do things that don’t come naturally to him – I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Nonis said.

That is obviously an extremely limited sample size, but when coupled with Kessel’s impressive regular-season production since arriving in 2009, it helped reinforce the winger’s immense value to the franchise. And there aren’t many others like him.

Just five NHL players in the current era have scored as many goals as Kessel by age 25 and they’re all superstars: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Ilya Kovalchuk. When this extension kicks in next season, he will paid on par with the other members of that elite group. The deal will make Kessel Toronto’s highest-paid player when it kicks in and will ensure that the Leafs control his rights through the prime years of his career.

Kessel will turn 26 on Wednesday and already has more than 500 NHL games under his belt. He’s also scored 185 career goals and Toronto management believes that there is basically no limit to how much higher he can set the bar.

“It’s going to be wherever he wants it to go,” Nonis said.

Inherent in any lengthy contract is the thought that the rising salary cap – some believe it could hit $80-million in five or six years – will make the commitment less onerous as time goes on. As it stands now, Kessel should eat up approximately 10 percent of the team’s cap space next season. That is pretty reasonable given that he has led the Leafs in scoring for four years running.

For Kessel, this contract represents a chance to take his game to another level. He is extremely comfortable in Toronto, a city he now considers a second home, and he’s been handed a tremendous amount of stability on a team that believes it is on the rise.

“I want to finish my career here,” Kessel said. “It would be a great city to win in and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen.”

It will be up to him and other core players Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson – all signed through at least 2017-18 – to help transform the Leafs into a true contender.

Sure, there is risk involved in betting heavily on him now, but it is a calculated risk. And at this point in time, with this player, it looks like a risk worth taking.

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