By Pat Pickens
Sports fans love instant insight.
We in the media are happy to oblige, although often times the true resolution of deals, trades and moves come years down the road.
Case in point: Sept. 19, 2009, the Toronto Maple Leafs trade two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to the Boston Bruins for 21-year-old, restricted-free agent forward Phil Kessel.
What happened next changed each franchise’s immediate future. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and fell in six games in the 2013 Cup Finals, thanks in part to those two first-round picks—Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. Meanwhile, in Toronto the trade serves as the low point of the Brian Burke era—Burke actually admitted that the B’s had gotten the better of the deal—and also helped the organization push Burke out after the 2012 season.
And yet, four years later, the Leafs have clearly gotten the better of the Kessel trade, particularly of late.
Why? First and foremost, Kessel has led the club in scoring every year in which he’s been a Leaf. Plus, his goal and assist on Saturday helped Toronto convincingly beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1, on Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Besides his goal-scoring prowess, in Randy Carlyle’s system Kessel has been more accountable defensively, maturing into a serviceable two-way forward. Did you hear him talk to the media about defensive responsibility after the Leafs’ 4-2 win Tuesday over the Ducks, a game in which Kessel recorded a hat trick?
“I thought we played well defensively, we kept them to the outside,” he said postgame on Tuesday.
Playing with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, the 26-year-old Kessel is tied for sixth in the league in goals (7), tied for seventh in points (15) and is a plus-4 player averaging more than 20 minutes per night. Plus, his advanced Corsi and Fenwick stats are extremely good.
Thinking about Kessel putting up such numbers in Sochi for Team USA gets me more than a little excited.
Yes, I hear you all in Toronto. You’re saying “Pat, you’re an idiot. What about those last four years? Kessel didn’t make the Leafs a Cup contender, while the Bruins were.” On the surface, you’re right. But, dig deeper and you’ll see that Kessel’s four goals in seven postseason games were four times as many as Seguin’s last postseason, and Kessel had just two fewer points in 15 fewer playoff games.
Besides, Seguin wasn’t an enormous influence in 2011 either—he registered seven points in 19 playoff games, and four of those came in a single game. Boston jumped so quickly off Seguin’s bandwagon that they dealt him to Dallas for Loui Eriksson and some prospects.
Maybe Boston will learn not to deal early-20-something forwards—see Seguin’s stats thus far— but I digress.
Hamilton, 20, is a budding defenceman and has played well. But is his upside better than Kessel’s production? Kessel is one of the league’s best wingers, is just entering his prime and evidently liked Toronto enough to sign an eight-year, $64 million deal this offseason.
“I love the city, I love the fans,” Kessel said Tuesday.
Kessel’s resurgent play has Toronto atop the Atlantic Division standings, and Kessel’s three-game scoring streak—in which he’s scored five goals—has catapulted the Leafs two points ahead of guess who. That’s right: the Boston Bruins.
But while Boston wins with defence and goaltending, the Leafs have better speed and more dynamic forwards.
And had they not traded for Kessel, that would not be the case.