The Toronto Maple Leafs edged the Nashville Predators 4-3 Monday night, getting a late game-winning goal from young Phil Kessel, Brian Burke’s shiny acquisition, the cornerstone of the Age of Truculence.
Since he started playing for the Leafs (about six weeks after the trade that brought him to Toronto from Boston) he has scored 15 goals and 13 assists, and is easily the best player on the Leafs.
But I think the trade has been a terrible mistake. He doesn’t have enough help on the ice, he’s not a franchise player, and ultimately, the price was too high for Toronto.
Don’t get me wrong, he is a great player. He finds open space, sees plays developing and makes intelligent decisions with the puck. He can score from anywhere in the offensive zone and demands that the other team cover him tightly, giving his teammates room to breathe.
Unfortunately, his teammates don’t seem to know what to do with that space. As a result, opposing defences have begun to take advantage of the Leafs lack of depth. They have, as defensive coaches say, begun to cheat on Kessel.
Defensive strategy relies heavily on reactive responses to an offence. Obviously, a good defence reacts to where the puck is, where the players are. But because Toronto does not have a strong secondary scoring threat, defences have taken to sealing off Kessel as soon as he’s on the ice. They know that should he pass the puck, the Leafs probably aren’t going to be able to score.
Now, there are some players who would be able to overcome that, who could make the players around them better. The kind of players that only need to be identified by their surnames: Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Ovechkin, Brodeur, Roy. Unfortunately, Kessel just doesn’t belong there. He’s a very good hockey player, but his shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry an entire franchise.
And that, ultimately, is why trading two first round picks and a second round pick was too much for Kessel.
That’s an awfully high price, jeopardizing the Leafs for the next five or more years. Frankly, I’m not sure that I’d trade that much for any of the franchise players mentioned above, let alone Phil Kessel.
With the Leafs toiling near the bottom of the standings, the trade looks even worse. There’s a good chance that the division rival Boston Bruins landed themselves a top three pick that could mean Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, both quality players that would’ve helped the Leafs considerably, and at the rookie maximum salary instead of Kessel’s $27 million over five years.
When there were rumours that Toronto was going to trade with the Boston Bruins, that Burke might land Kessel, a proven sniper, I was ecstatic. At last, the Leafs were going to start to turn it around. Most people I knew thought that too, but my good friend Ruben and my dad both held out, saying that it was a bad trade. It took me a while, but now I see it too. Phil Kessel is a quality player, but the price the Maple Leafs paid was way too high.