Kessel’s victory a moment of celebration, not regret


After months and months of gruelling hockey, the NHL season is finally over, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been named Stanley Cup Champions for the second time in the cap era. Somewhere, Brian Burke is screaming about team development models and threatening to rent out a barn. But speaking of Burke, there’s a certain winger on this Penguins roster hoisting the silver mug for the first time.

Yes, we’re talking about Phil.

Both Kessel trades, the one that brought him into the Leafs and the one that sent him away, have been under immense scrutiny since the second they happened. The Boston arguments have largely ended in a stalemate. Most agree that the Leafs were too confident in their team’s short-term outlook to be giving up so many draft picks. At the same time, the Bruins didn’t have the long-term in mind when they ensured that both of their crown jewels played their last game in Boston gold at 21 years old.

But the Pittsburgh trade was a tough one to swallow, at least for me. Kessel was oft-maligned by fans and media in this city, with the team’s failures often placed on him. Phil, a few years older than me and a member of the team while I was still in my teens, probably ends up being the last Leafs player I ever “look up to”, a star player in blue and white from before, and into the beginnings of my early adulthood.

What made Phil so endearing to me, however, is that he was the everyman’s superstar. He didn’t have a bodybuilder’s physique. Because of this and because of his explosive speed used in Wilson’s rushing and Carlyle’s winger-oriented dump and chase system, he looked like he was on the verge of collapse on every shift. He didn’t totally dominate every facet of the ice, but he was one of the best at what we’d come to see; he’d get the puck, he’d take off like a rocket, and he’d rip a snapshot unlike anyones before him or after him. It was entertaining as all hell and often successful. I also related a lot to his introverted personality, and as contradictory as it may sound from a developing journalist, his hesitance to talk and feed into the lazier topics was something I respected a bunch.

I also get why that frustrated people, though. People don’t come to the games to see a more talented version of themselves. They expect superhuman specimens who look like they score with ease and would rather die than see the other team score. The “200-foot game” is considered to be a universal aspiration, and the points don’t matter if the team loses more often than not in the process. While goals are fun, when you live by them, a cold streak will make you look useless no matter whether that’s true or not. Off the ice, as much as I hate to say it, it’s easier to control the tempo of the media machine than it is to reject it. If you fake a smile and say a bunch of nothing, you don’t allow room for controversy.

As much as I would have liked to see him survive this rebuild, and as much of a mind-shaker as news of the trade was while sitting in the back of a van in Newfoundland, the move was the right decision. The Leafs’ current build structure required about as total of a personnel turnaround as they could get. Phil was the centrepiece of not one, but two regimes before the present group, and while he may have legitimately been Toronto’s most lethal presence on the wing in any of our lifetimes, he was simultaneously the representative of impatience and poor planning on the grand scale. In a year where the organization wanted to be faceless on the ice and regroup from top-down, it made little sense to drag someone who was probably over half a decade into frustration with the attention he received.

Some may balk about the return, but when a star player is known to be on the market, especially with a sense of urgency and a short list of potential locations, the haul is never huge. Retaining salary stings, but was a reality of what ended up being a “Pittsburgh or Keep Him” race. Even still, Kasperi Kapanen made huge strides this year, Scott Harrington seems to be a decent enough defenceman, Nick Spaling was flipped for a decent pick, and upgrading a second into a first worked out well. One also has to consider that holding out likely means the Leafs finish higher than 30th; jumping the gun put the Leafs in prime position to draft the next great American goal scorer, eight years younger, with no prior demons and playing a more valuable position.

As for Phil? I’m happy as hell for him. You’d have to be. After a shaky start to the season, he found his spot in the lineup and proved that much like in Toronto, he does best when he’s simultaneously the focal point of his line but not the focal point of the outside attention. He dominated throughout the playoffs as we all knew he would and now has his first ring. It was fun to watch, and from the looks of it, the less-than-fairytale ending will deliver plenty of dividends to both sides when all is said and done.

    • I’ve had this post on my mind since the second round, but kept putting it off for other work. Was pretty obvious early in the game that this was how it was going to end so I started writing at the beginning of the third.

  • silentbob

    Sorry, but screw Phil.

    I’m not happy for him at all. Sure he scored goals/put up points when he played for the leafs. But he clearly did not meet expectations off the ice (and i’m not talking about that bogus hot dog article). If he was a stand up guy & hard worker off the ice then Shanahan wouldn’t have endorsed the new regime trading him, at his lowest value this offseason, for what could amount to peanuts.

    I wasn’t cheering against Phil, I don’t hate the guy, I just don’t like him. I certainly don’t agree with those who are happy for him & wanted him to succeed.

    Just putting that out there, I’m sure I’m not alone on this line of thinking

  • silentbob

    What would be fascinating is to get honest statements from some of the leafs of the past. What they thought of Kessel and his style of play, his attitude, his lack of defensive effort in Toronto. I would love to know what a George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Bobby Baun, Frank Mahovlich Sittler, MacDonald, Vaive, Salming etc. thought of his game as a leaf.

    I do know that despite now being on a Stanley Cup team and scoring at a point a game in the playoffs the management of the U.S. squad didn’t want him on their team. That speaks volumes to me.

    Still for a guy who had cancer in his teens and really didn’t fit the role of a leader, you can’t help but congratulate him on winning a cup.

    • Gary Empey

      Re- “Kessel and his style of play, his attitude, his lack of defensive effort in Toronto.”

      I am not sure why so many people blame Kessel for Toronto’s mostly poor performance on the ice.

      If you look at this year, after Kessel was traded, the Leafs ended up as the worst team in the NHL as opposed to last years 4th worst team.

      • Foximus

        The difference from Kessel’s last year and this past season is often the leafs iced an A.H.L. team. When the team gave away Reimer, you knew the leafs were determined to finish last. HELLO AUSTON MATTHEWS.

      • N.Rad

        You do realize that leafs actually had 1 more points this year than last year even though they finished last? On a points per game basis they actually improved slightly over last year (even with an AHL team). The other teams around them were not tanking as hard. With Phil in the line up we would have definitely finished further ahead.

        I am very glad Phil won the Cup, even though his contribution in the playoffs really screwed our Pittsburgh pick.

      • silentbob

        In Toronto Kessel was in a situation were he just couldn’t win.

        He was mis-cast as a franchise, carry the team type forward on a team that lack any franchise, carry the team type players (Phanuef was also mis-cast in this role) buy a GM who thought he was the smartest guy in the room and just keep compounding his mistakes.

        I’m sure it sounds stupid, but Kessel is the player & person he is, and that is not entirely positive or negative. He has a tremendous amount of natural ability but not the best work ethic. He isn’t and out going person and had trouble with the media, but would often try anyway. When he was “hot” he could be the best player in the NHL, when he wasn’t he’d go through very long slumps etc…

        The Penguins are a team that is in a position to utilize Kessel and have success with him like the Leafs were never going to be with him. The deal that brought Kessel to the Leafs was terrible for Toronto, we gave up the kind of assets we needed most for a player we were not in a position to fully utilize (it had the potential to be good for Boston, turned out…..meh at best). The deal to the Penguins was great for both teams; the Penguins got a star depth players and Kessel can play a role he is suited for. The Leafs got rid of a player who, while talented wasn’t what they needed and put themselves in a much better position to rebuild the team.

        • JB#1

          Well said, silentbob, well said.

          The lesson I choose to take away from Kessel’s playoff performance is that you put elite level skill on what was essentially Pitt’s 3rd line and turn them loose to feast on the other team’s 3rd D-pairing. Poor Roman Polak…

          What we as Leafs fans should be looking forward to in the hopefully not-too-distant future is our own highly skilled 3rd line (Nylander & Brown? or Kadri & Marner? or some combination thereof) feasting on other team’s 3rd D-pairing the way the HBK line did for Pitt.

          I would have preferred to see Reimer and Polak win a Cup but I’ll still send my congrats to Phil.

        • TGT23

          Silent Bob you nailed it. Burke of course the bombastic legend in his own mind was indeed the one that suggested Phaneuf would return to his possible Norris trophy winning play when he came into the league and Kessel would be the saviour of the team.

          When the leafs hired Burke I got castigated for simply telling the truth about Burke, namely that he would be a disaster for the leafs which he truly was.

          Now Burke will take all the accolades for drafting Pronger and the Sedins but you won’t hear about some of his other bone head decisions such as 1989, when the leafs selected a young defenceman named Jason Herter as the 8th pick. Herter played at the University North Dakota for three years.

          All summer of 1989 Burke raved about this guy as being a future all-star defenceman. The Canucks never let him play one N.H.L. game and he bounced around in the minors and Europe but did manage to get into one game with the Islanders to tell his future grand kids about.

          We now have an organization of several proven winners who rather than allow their mouth to do the walking allow their actions to do the talking.

    • TGT23

      I don’t think the Team USA speaks to anything. We all know that hockey circles have their biases and their ignorance well in place. Consider how long it took for teams to even consider smaller talent guys in “Today’s NHL”. Consider the analytics debate that, though one sided, is still going on. Guys like P.K Subban or Kris Letang missed the cut despite being probably better D-Men than most of the guys selected. Concussions. Fighting. Visors. The list goes on and on.

      When someone like Kessel gets a reputation, deserved or not, hockey circles rally around those reputations and guys like Kessel don’t make World Cup teams.

      It only speaks to small minds and out-dated thinking. The kind of thing we’re slowly moving passed. Or so we hope.

      Congratulations to Phil and the Penguins.

  • CMpuck

    A bit pissed that Sidney got the Smythe on reputation alone, for those that say Phil can’t have because he was 3rd line, Justin Williams…. Crosby’s Conn Smythe is a joke. Murray or Phil, not Sid.

  • Robert

    Happy for Phil.

    Question: Should Leaf fans copy Bruins fans by screaming “Thank you Phil” whenever the Leafs and Penguins play, since his trade allowed Toronto to draft Auston Matthews?

  • Robert

    “david clarkson’s signing a moment of celebration and not regret”

    steen’s trade a moment of celebration and not regret

    grabovski’s buyout is a moment of celebration and not regret