Maybe Kessel had to be traded for his own sake

Someone in the Leafs front office does not like Phil Kessel. It might be Shanahan. It might be Mark Hunter. It might be Kyle Dubas. It might be Mike Babcock. Perhaps even all four. But either way, the manner in which the Leafs’ most-talented player was just sent out of town really had “we need to get rid of this guy, and fast” written all around it, and I’m not entirely sure why. There’s a reason though, there just has to be. It all came about so quickly.

Now, without question this trade does fall in line with what the Leafs need to do in burning everything to the ground to try something new, if that’s what they’ve committed to. But the urgency here, especially with more pressing concerns on the roster, is surprising, as is the return in the trade. [Though don’t put me in the camp that believes the Leafs got absolutely killed on this deal. They didn’t.]

So, why did this happen? And perhaps more importantly, why did it need to happen now? Here, let me try to talk myself into this deal.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Toronto should’ve simply held on to Kessel if they couldn’t demand a ransom this summer, and waited until he bounced back this upcoming season, making him a little more valuable next year. I don’t know if I agree. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks, you know the league is experiencing a major shift toward teams targeting and locking up young elite players through their prime – those 22 to 29 years. Kessel has been an elite talent but he’s not entering his prime, he’s leaving it. Even blowing up his boxcar numbers by playing with Crosby (which most expect to happen) won’t change that.

Strike one on Kessel, he’s in the early stages of a big contract but in the latter stages of his productive years. This is the case for plenty of players around the league, mind you, but that doesn’t excuse it. Moving out 8-million AAV now puts you among those suitors for young RFAs and the like (see Calgary with Hamilton, for example) when the time comes to make those sort of moves.

Secondly, does the perception of Kessel with media and fans factor in here? You might hope not, but it’s difficult to say it doesn’t. I mean, come on, whether right or wrong, we know it has to.

Just as we all predicted, it didn’t take long for some of the members of the Toronto media to start sharpening their knives when Kessel was shown the door on Wednesday. He’s off to Pittsburgh to play with the best puck-distributors in the world (which, after half-a-decade of playing alongside Tyler Bozak, should feel like a hockey fantasy camp), but of course he couldn’t be seen off without some ugly parting shots from the city’s most vile. In its worst cases this is no doubt due to some writers and radio folks in Toronto just simply being the worst, but in the bigger picture it’s because it was probably unfair to both Phil Kessel and the Leafs to ever have him as the go-to guy in such a market.

This might sound like an insane thing to say, but the reason Kessel eventually became such a “polarizing” player and found his head on the media chopping block so often is because he was probably too skilled relative to his teammates. Dion Phaneuf, as the captain no less, was supposed to shoulder some of the burden of this team as a core player, but because he saw his play drop and level off so early in his Toronto tenure, he’s sort of settled in nicely and avoided too much media heat in recent times. People just sort of accepted that Dion is what he is, and it feels like they could never figure out what Kessel was, so they hated him. It also doesn’t hurt that Phaneuf took a major step forward in his relations with the media since joining the Leafs, and Kessel never bothered.

Joffrey Lupul? Tyler Bozak? Again, nice guys in interviews, so they always get a pass from the media there, but another thing they have going for them is neither has ever really been good enough for anyone to care much if they were in a cold streak. With Kessel it was different, because he just scored, and scored, and scored, and didn’t seem to care about much else, especially what the trolls, most notably Simmons and Feschuck, thought of him. It drove them insane. 

But still, there’s more to it, because even the most reasonable reporters seemed to never really fall in love with Kessel.

Kessel was not the type to lead a team, though he was put in the position to do so, optically. Ownership and management and coaching put Kessel in a spotlight inappropriate for him and fans rightfully balked. It’s neither their fault nor his. There’s no fault to be passed around here. Sports fandom is for playing favourites while irrationally hating exemplary human beings like Daniel Alfredsson.

Those are some lines from an article by Joe Pack at VICE, and I think they sum up the Kessel era quite nicely. Pack is right, there is no fault to be passed around here. Well, there is, but anyone you’d pass it to is long gone, thankfully. For Kessel, Shanahan, Dubas, whoever was left, they’re all just trying to move on in whatever directions seem best after the debacle that was Nonis in Toronto.

It’s difficult to filter out the truth from childish ax-grinding when you have people like Steve Simmons floating around, but we can probably try to make some conclusions about Kessel without making this about lowbrow fat jokes or some other junk. There is a middle-ground here. 

To me, as an outsider, it really seems as though Kessel’s sort of laid-back attitude stretched beyond his relationship with the media, and the Leafs’ front office felt he couldn’t be relied upon to build around with new kids like Marner and Nylander entering the fold soon. It absolutely pains me to say it, but I think they wanted a better example for this next group – not even so much in terms of performance, because Kessel was always elite on the ice, but just in how to be the face of a franchise.

And this quote from Mike Babcock from the draft probably gives us even more insight into what kind of conversations were happening behind closed doors.

We are going to be a fit, fit team. We are going to be a team that goes to the media every day after a win or a loss or practice and owns their stuff. Period. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s not you’re going to step up.

I have no problem with the way Kessel handled himself in Toronto (then again, I probably don’t know the entire story), but I’m guessing Shanahan felt it wasn’t the right way for a key piece to operate, and didn’t want it to be the norm for up-and-comers. Maybe this new philosophy Babcock wants to unroll is something Kessel could have dealt with, or maybe not. But what the trade says is Shanahan didn’t know if Kessel could “step up”, and he obviously didn’t feel like he could wait to find out.

  • Gary Empey

    The return was alright, but the main thing is that Kessel finally went to a good team, we didn’t deserve him, he carried us hard and made the last few years watchable, WHILE getting ripped apart.

    I will never cheer harder for a ex-leafs than Kessel, heres hoping he rips the league

  • Gary Empey

    An excellent article Ryan. I think you have to look at the hiring of Mike Babcock as a change in the leaf management thinking. Remember it is Babcock who much to the chagrin and anger of Hab fans simply refused to use a Norris trophy winner, namely P.K. Subban in the crucial olympic games.

    As you pointed out Shanahan and Babcock want ALL PLAYERS to be accountable win or lose.

    Subban even as recent as a year ago found his butt on the end of the bench for a period by a coach. This would never happen in leafville as Kessel simply told the media at training camp that he had a long, long leash that he was given by management and thus he did things his way. He was Phil Kessel and you were not.

    What got to even some of the more pro Kessel followers was his qutting on the team in the second half, oh sure he wasn’t alone but 3 goals in 25 games really summed it up.

    No matter the sport when you are being paid the highest salary on a team you have to some degree show leadership. Now some will argue this shy, introverted talented player didn’t have it in him.

    Such being the case he is gone along with that huge salary cap except for the 15%.

    The leafs appear to have done a lot of good home work in their drafting this year to try to pick out younsters who not only excel on the ice but in general were responsible young men.

    To me this is the proper way to go. I’ll conclude with a story in the N.F.L. a few years back. The San Diego Chargers had the number one pick in the draft. They had the choice of quarter backs to select. They spent $10,000 having Washington State quarter back Ryan Leaf analysed from head to toe. The shrinks said he was a nut case. San Diego drafted him anyway. The Shrinks were 100% right.

    I’ll know the leafs are truly heading in the right directions when the club leaders show true leadership.

    An example of this was Max Pacioretty of the Canadians who before the season started stated he felt a major responsibility in being one of the three co captains for the Habs. He stated every facet of his game would be worked upon. He would try to be the hardest worker on the ice in the games and practice, not the Kessel model of being last on the ice for a practice and first off the ice after the practice.

    That is what Shanahan, Babcock will seek and demand in the future development of the core of the team.

    Should Shanahan and Babcock and the rest of the exeuctive succeed in developing this type of leadership similar to the days of Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, Alan Stanley, Chief George Armstrong, Red Kelly and others they will be well on their way to bringing a cup back to the city of Toronto.

  • Gary Empey

    Good article. If the Leafs decided to keep Kessel until trade deadline can you imagine the disruption to team chemistry that would of caused.
    Plus he had that limited no trade contract. No way did Kessel fit into our short term or long term plans. Now was the right time to trade him for picks and prospects.

  • Jeremy Ian

    This trade favored the Pens and the Leafs pay for the Pens’ gain. But what’s the real story behind this lopsided trade?

    The trade-him-now urge meant the Leafs did not get equal value back. The salary dump was not even that great because the Leafs take on Spaling ($2.2m), whom they need like a hole in the head.

    I totally agree that the way this was handled reveals a willingness to pay a substantial price to keep Kessel out of the locker room.

    There weren’t going to be a lot of suitors at Kessel’s price point, and any serious contender would have cap issues. So, this was one deal that required time and a crafty negotiator.

    Either the Leafs brass tried everything and realized that they were not going to get a better deal, or they were impetuous and determined to make a fast deal.

    I hope it’s the former and not the latter. If it’s the former, it should be the last price we have to pay for the Nonis era. If they were impetuous, it’s the first bad deal under the Shanahan era.

  • jasken

    I have to admit I was very disappointed with the return Kessel got! We got robbed! However the best part of the trade is that Kessel is gone! I love the USA and Americans don’t get me wrong but Kessel is the living embodiment of every (unfair) negative stereotype of Americans. He’s arrogant, he fat and he’s. Lazy!!! Tyler Bozak is not Sidney Crosby. He was an undrafted kid who worked his ass off just to make it to the NHL. Then he met Kessel and he turned lazy and aloof! Yes Bozaks numbers are inflated playing with Kessel but lots of top players play with other top players and no one knocks them for it. Kessel was a cancer in the dressing room! Salute gate never could have happened without his approval. Wilson was right about him.

    We may have got hosed on the trade but at least we don’t have Kessel anymore!

    • dougie88

      Steve Simmons, is that you??

      Bozak is the epitome of riding someones coattails, getting paid, and slacking off.

      I’m pretty sure that fat and lazy people don’t make it to the NHL. Just a hunch.

      Also, calling Kessel a cancer is completely classless and tactless, and maybe you should pick better terms.

      • dougie88

        Kessel is an amazingly talented hockey player who made it to the NHL based on those virtues, but he’s also fat and lazy and those are facts. Fat? Just look at him! Lazy= last on first off at practice. I forgot about his cancer issues and my comments weren’t meant with any disrespect to those who go through that. I apologize. I meant that his negativeb attitude was contagious and his tremendous skill level only compounded the contagion. We’re better. Off. Without him!

        • N.Rad

          Why does it matter the way he looked? Last I checked he was the fastest skater on our team, and probably one of the fastest in the league. Just because he lef the ice early in practice doesn’t mean anything. I would rather the whole team leave the ice at his time if it allows them to put up his type of numbers.

          • jasken

            Kessel May have been good enough to cut practice short but the rest of the team wasn’t. Leaders lead by example and he should have set the tone but he didn’t. Instead he railed against the media and participated in salute gate. Why do people care that he scored some goals, the opposition scored more when he was on! I know plus minus is a poor stat for comparing players on different teams but Kessel was sheltered in his assignments and still was one of the worst on the team for giving up more goals than he got. Why are we morning his loss? All leaf fans should rejoice! Kessel is gone halalulia!

          • silentbob

            That’s kind of the problem.

            Kessel can get away with it because his talent level is so high. Someone like Bozak can’t &, needs to be putting in more work. But there was report not too long ago about him following Kessels lead. Then Ferraro talked on TSN about his son seeing Datsyuk going to the gym right after practice, and when he saw the teams best player putting in that extra work, he followed.

            I think they want more of the latter and less of the former.

        • Gary Empey

          I’m neither Simmons nor feschuk, I dislike both. That being said I guarantee I’m more educated than either of you. Either way Kessel was a liability and the leafs are a far better team now than they were when that fatso was in the lineup!

  • silentbob

    I don’t think it’s fair to shanahn to say he guessed that kessel couldn’t “step up”. He has been there for Over a year now. He took that first year to evualiate the team and players and most of us were happy to “give him” that time. I think we have to give shanahn the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows who is going to be a good fit going forward and who needs to go.

    I think we should look at this as a sign that kessel would not have been a fit here and that management group we all like and trust made the best decision for the team moving forward.

  • CMpuck

    It’s too bad we didn’t land Poulliot in the trade. But at least Kessel is gone! He’s the worst mistake in leafs history! There’s a reason he was picked last at the all star game, of all NHL stars he was the worst! Yes we scored more goals with him on the ice than we did without him, but so did the opposition. Without Kessel there’s actually a very good chance we make the playoffs next year without him dragging us down!

    Too bad he will probably cause the Penguins to miss the playoffs next year and we won’t get our first round pick!

  • N.Rad

    Kessel is a career minus 74! Considering he gets the most advantageous starts that pretty aweful! Who gives a rats ass if he scores a lot, his opponents score even more. I’m not a leafs fan but any team that gets rid of a Kessel is a winner even if they get crabs as a return!

  • Gary Empey

    Report: NHLer owner publicly rips Penguins general manager.
    July 2, 2015

    Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos is not afraid to share his opinion and on Thursday he shared his thoughts on a rather strange topic, the general manager of another team.

    Karmanos tore into Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford for the way he has handled the Penguins since taking over as general manager.

    On the Penguins’ win-now approach:

    “Pittsburgh has no first-round picks anymore. They traded their first-round pick from the year before. They traded their first-round pick for this year, and now they’ve traded their first-round pick for next year. But they have Kessel, who may score as many goals as, uh, Alex Semin did (six). And I don’t have to take credit for that.”

    It’s rare to see an owner so publicly criticize a general manager, and even rarer to criticize one that isn’t on his team, but Karmanos wasn’t done there, he believes the Penguins may not care because they want to win now and then sell.

    “I think they’ll sell that team for between $700 and $800 million in Pittsburgh, and the cupboard will be pretty bare by that time.”

    Rutherford for his part has yet to respond to these comments.

    • jasken

      The irony is Semin was actually signed by Rutherford which Kamanos just thought once bitten twice shy dont blame Kamanos he was left paying for Semin not Rutherford and will be for awhile yet.

  • Gary Empey

    Ha ha. All you guys trumpeting how great Dumbass and Shanny were going to be are now realizing that we replaced stupid management with a slightly different kind of stupid management.

    It is clear with Kessel, the goal was not to extract value for Kessel so to set up the franchise for future success. The goal management had was to get rid of Kessel.

    There goal is not directly about winning but about doing whatever they think they need to do.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Reading these comments I truly began to wonder that if these people are the ones representing the fans, maybe we deserve not winning the cup all this time. Maybe we don’t deserve to win it later either.

    Phil’s given all he had to this team. He’s one of the few (Nazem, Jake and Morgan being the others) this team has been anything close to watchable these last few years. Defensibly sound? No, but try insulating that with a good center and another defensibly good winger. Instead we give him Bozak and JvR, two definitely more floaterish players. But yes, he looks pudgy (that’s probably the cancer and the medication). He’s still one of the fastest hockey players on the planet, but no, he’s pudgy. Speaking of Bozak, better move him fast, doubt he cracks 20 without Kessel strapped to his hip (but he’s a good ol canadian boy, so he oughtta give us a good return).

    I hope Phil the best on his new adventures, hope he scores a double hattrick next Halloween.

    • jasken

      Rutherford said all he cares about is that he plays with either Crosby or Malkin consistently. No more of the “Crosby and Malkin on the same line fixes everything!” “That’s going to be up to Mike [Johnston], and how that all fits in camp. We have Kessel and [Patric] Hornqvist. The coach can figure out who goes with who and keep them there on a regular basis instead of moving them around,” That’s just 2 of the statements made by Rutherford about what Kessel wants.

      Kessel’s success and failure have always been his own fault no one elses. Rick Vaive scored 50 with Derlago as his centerman multiple times Derlago without Vaive is Bozak today without Kessel. The only thing I hope for their careers dont dwindle while away from each other like Vaive and Derlago’s did.

      You think its from cancer and medication he used 6 years ago some facts on testicular cancer and medication and program once you have beaten it.

      You want to know if some fans deserve to see a cup in Toronto when the Leafs lost in the 80s we didn’t throw jerseys during a game we stood and clapped with a standing ovation at the end of the game at the Gardens no matter how bad the score was. Win or Lose you cheer your team show appreciation not insult them.

      Do you have any clue what its like to be a true Leafs fan?

      I support and have even been for 35 years and usually I defend every player no matter how bad people think they are. The only thing that gets me out of shape is when a player does not commit to the team unit and rather be part of the unit decides to play their own style.

      When Jeff O’Neill showed up out of shape and unconditioned he heard it and he was unconditioned and gave a poor perfomance was benched. That was his last season in NHL 30 years of age previous 30-40 goal scorer done for what doesn’t want to get conditioned and stay in shape. Any player I dont care who it is Richards, Kessel, should have stipulations in the contracts. A base wage for conditioning stint in AHL unless through injury.

      • Kanuunankuula

        You do realize all this “out of shape”-story is from the reporters. No-one from the organization said this. Most of his teammates said he’s always been one of the most fit from the bunch. Appearance isn’t everything.

        I thought Phil and Kadri were the few that actually cared that the season went belly up, Kessel gave interviews where he said that he’s disapointed in himself and the team that they could not win (not his fault really, this team was so badly built).

        I think it’s extremely embarrassing how people are treating Kessel, I think he really did love being a Leaf and the city of Toronto. He does not deserve this.

  • jasken

    Don’t link to Simmons’ article, it’s giving the sun trolls page views 😉

    One extra factor to consider in the Kessel trade: how much worse does it make the Leafs this year? In other words, how much does it improve their draft position next year? 1 spot? 2? 3? Guaranteed top 5?

  • Harte of a Lion

    For the first time in recent memory (sorry Mr. Burke but your tenure in Toronto was like a fifty dollar hooker, you teased us, misled us, screwed us then ran off leaving a mess that even penicillin won’t cure) I’m excited that I might live to see the Stanley Cup in Toronto. I have ridden the blue-and-white roller coaster for over 50 years, with the Shanaplan I see blue skies and sunshine.

    Phil Kessel is an exceptional goal scorer however his time in TO was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Goodbye Phil, I wish you much success!
    Whether readers agree or not, this trade needed to happen. The malaise that has inflicted this team since JFJ was hired has started to heal.

  • jasken

    @ Kanuunankuula

    No really although my knowledge comes with understanding NHL players daily consummition of calories and what they need to do. Cause well I actually know trainers, players all levels, coaches, and body builders.

    Players dont open their mouth usually about anything like that because of a thing karma. They dont say that player isn’t very good, or their lazy, uncondition, or have a bad attitude because they dont want their flaws targeted.

    Now I dont agree with Simmonds in bringing in what is off season junk. If he was on the ice 215-220 lbs during season that’s a concern, if it effects his game that is a concern, other than that his off season is his business. When coaches and management they opened the door on Kadri for it in AHL cant complain on who flies target.

    Maybe people like myself who believe Kessel had more to offer to his fellow linemates, and other players were wrong. Maybe he just doesn’t realize his influence, or he cant point out things, and give advice to other players on bench. Besides his production he really cant help them by telling them what they need to do.