Toronto Maple Leafs: Phil Kessel Trade Shows that Team is Ready to Move Forward


Toronto Maple Leafs: Phil Kessel Trade Shows that Team is Ready to Move Forward

The Phil Kessel era in Toronto is officially over.

As Canadians were either enjoying their day off or watching the free agency shows on Rogers Sportsnet and TSN, the news of Kessel’s trade sent everyone into a frenzy. When the trade broke it was a mad scramble to get all the details of the trade which were finally finalized not too long. This is the final details of the deal;

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The initial reaction has not been favourable for the Leafs with many believing that they did not get enough of a return for Kessel who has been a top end player since 2009. However, when you look at the deal, it is the prospect of how it unfolds three to five years down the road that should be intriguing for the Leafs. Yes, Kessel will help the Penguins right now on the top line with Crosby, the $1.25M cap hit for the next seven years is tough as well, but the Leafs got a lot of pieces for Kessel, especially on the blueline.

What Did the Leafs Give Up

Nov 14, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) gets by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (7) during the second period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kessel will bring a different dynamic to the Penguins with a viable option of the right wing for Sidney Crosby and on their powerplay. Kessel has not played with a top centre like Crosby so expect his numbers improve in Pittsburgh. It was obvious that the Leafs did not see the point of keeping Kessel and his $8M cap hit around for the next seven years especially if the team is not going to be a playoff team in the next three to four years. The $1.25M cap hit that the Leafs had to retain is going to be tough down the road if they need the cap space but there was no way the Penguins make the trade without the Leafs retaining salary.

Tim Erixon and Tyler Biggs were only included in the deal to accommodate the contracts coming in because there is a maximum of 50 contracts allowed per team. Biggs has been considered a bust after being selected 22nd overall in 2011 and will get a chance to restart in Pittsburgh. Erixon recently signed a one year contract but is seen as a depth defenseman that will give the Penguins some options if they run into injury problems like they did last season. The Leafs also included a second-round pick that they received from Pittsburgh in the Daniel Winnik trade.

What Did the Leafs Receive

Dec 18, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Scott Harrington (6) carries the puck against the Colorado Avalanche during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of pieces included in the deal for Kessel and while nothing jumps out right away that says the Leafs ripped off the Penguins. The biggest hurdle that the Leafs had to get over was that many knew that the Leafs wanted to move on from Kessel so that takes away from the value they get in a trade. The other part is the eight team trade list that Kessel had, with the Penguins being one of them, so the Leafs had their hands tied with that as well.

Scott Harrington, a Kingston, ON, native has ties to Mark Hunter as a former member of the London Knights playing 216 games in the OHL. He played 10 games this past season when the Penguins were dealing with injuries on the blueline. He is known as reliable two-way player who is not overly physical but is reliable in his own end. He has the chance to make the Leafs this season, but depending on how he does at training camp could also be in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies and play big time minutes for them. The Leafs depth on the blueline is not strong so adding a player like Harrington helps in that regard. Working with assistant coach D.J. Smith will be key for Harrington because of the work Smith did with the Oshawa Generals who were one of the best defensive teams in the OHL as they shut down Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the OHL finals.

Sep 25, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Kasperi Kapanen (42) skates against the Minnesota Wild during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kasperi Kapanen is an interesting prospect who has top six potential as Brendan Shanahan eluded to in his media scrum. He has good puck handling ability, but the one knock on his game is that he prefers to play along the perimeter. He will try to be physical in order to obtain the puck and uses his speed to elude defenders. He came over from Finland at the end of the season to play with Wilkes-Barre in the AHL, in seven playoff games he had five points, so given his limited experience playing in North America he will likely play a full season in the AHL, potentially with William Nylander, which would be exciting to watch. Clearly he was a player that the Leafs wanted as Assistant GM Kyle Dubas said earlier.

Nick Spaling is a versatile forward who was acquired by Pittsburgh in the trade that sent James Neal to the Nashville Predators. At 26 years old Spaling will probably fit on the third line, play a pivotal role on the penalty kill, and possesses low-end scoring upside. While he does not look like an attractive pickup, he is the type of player that can be an asset moving forward in a trade, or be a role player during the rebuild. Dubas had this to say about Spaling’s role next season.

The Leafs first-round pick in 2016 is conditional where if the Penguins miss the playoffs the pick changes to a first rounder in 2017. Again, getting a first rounder for Kessel had to be important for the Leafs, especially with the new focus the team is putting towards drafting and developing. The Leafs turned the 24th overall pick from the Predators into a couple of second round picks so expect them to probably do the same with this pick along with the third round pick as well.

Moving Forward

Shanahan made it clear that while the team has good individual players, together as a group it has not worked. Kessel would score at least 30 goals a season for the Leafs but was never a plus player. When you are paying a player $8 million he needs to do more than score and that is why the Leafs have had a hard time moving forward. If Kessel could have been more accountable with his play at both ends and did not have his production fall off at the end of the season, things may have been different. It was not fair for him to receive the criticism he got half the time because he did produce. The issue, though, was that the Leafs would not make a similar deal to get him the centre that he needed. Now he gets to play with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who will elevate his game in a way Tyler Bozak could not.

It will be a tough transition moving forward especially with players like James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul (if he stays) and Nazem Kadri who will take more responsibility. This is where the trust in a coach like Mike Babcock becomes important because if he wanted Kessel to stay he would still be here. But it looks like the pain is already here for Leafs fans who have to embrace the fact that more changes are forthcoming in order to get the franchise back on track. Trading Kessel is a big step moving forward because it shows that the team is willing to move into a new direction and no player is safe.

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