Phil Kessel, the most prolific goal scorer the Toronto Maple Leafs' have had in years, is now a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This comes just days after rumours started that he might be dealt at the NHL Draft.
Toronto - July 2, 2015 - The last week has seen the Toronto Maple Leafs officially step into a new era. We’re now moving into the second year under Brendan Shanahan and his team, and the time for evaluation has ended, and the time for action is upon us. The last week has provided us key insight into the gameplan and expectation moving forward in Toronto. The Leafs game plan seems to fall into 3 separate categories: The draft, free agency, and of course trades. There is a lot to be said about the latter, and obviously Phil Kessel’s departure. However before we get to that let us dive into the first two.
The draft is the foundation of their game plan, the base. Shanahan brought in Mark Hunter for one thing, and one thing alone. Find talent in the draft. Not size, not grit or courage. Talent and skill. Thats all Shanahan wants, and at first glance, Hunter most certainly delivered. Mitch Marner at 4th overall was not a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. In terms of skill and talent, well Marner has it in spades. Lots has been said about Marner, and lots will be continue to be said. What I find interesting about the Leafs’ draft however is the selections made after the first round.
I’m not going to go through each and every pick but here is what stands out to me.
Travis Dermott at 34th overall seems to be a bit of a reach, however he has excellent vision and hockey sense. With the right development he could pan out nicely and two way defenseman are always nice to have.
Winger Jeremy Bracco at 61st could be a tremendous pick. He broke USHL scoring records and again has tremendous skill and speed, but lacks size. I’m doing my best to not get my hopes up with Bracco, but he could be fantastic.
The last stand out pick to me is Nikita Korostelev at 185th overall. Korostelev was ranked in the top 60 on a number of draft boards but some how fell out of that range, possibly because Sarnia was not a very good team at all this year. Korostelev has an explosive shot, can lay punishing hits and has a sweet pair of hands. Im really not sure how he fell but I’m glad Toronto grabbed him. All in all I’m very impressed with the Leafs’ draft, but only time will tell if it went as well as I’m inclined to think.
Clearly the draft is where Toronto wants to find high end talent, but you can’t field an NHL roster filled with small talented rookies. You have to have other players out there, and that’s where free agency comes into play. The past few years the Leafs have been the joke of free agency, thank you Dave Nonis for screwing that up. However the last 2 years have shown a very promising trend. The Leafs have almost exclusively signed blue collar players who have great possession numbers on 1 and 2 year contracts. Last year they signed Daniel Winnik, David Booth and Mike Santorelli. On July 1st this year, Toronto added Matt Hunwick, P.A. Parenteau, Mark Arcobello and brought back Daniel Winnik after his short stint in Pittsburgh. They also re-signed Richard Panik to a very team-friendly contract. Seriously, Panik should maybe find a new agent.
None of these players have high end talent, or are elite goal scorers. They are blue collar guys who will come in, be professional, and play the game the right way. They will set an example for the youth while ensuring the Leafs move on from their run and gun days. The Leafs management seems intent on using the free agent pool as a place to find cheap, defensively sound players. The other upside to adding players like this is it’s easy to flip them at the deadline for picks, which can then be used to grab more young high end talent. It appears to be a great strategy.
Now before I raise my blood pressure diving into the Phil Kessel trade and all that surrounds it I want to explore this new strategy a little bit further. I really do like the direction they’re going in and how they’re approaching building the team.
The Leafs’ every year look like they are going to bring in depth players who play solid defense and have 2nd and 3rd line offensive production. This is where they will find their size, and grit and all those fantastic buzzwords that divide the hockey community. This means that every draft pick they have, they can aim at the player who has the most raw upside. They can focus on skill, hockey IQ and the player’s character. They can draft elite talent whom they then develop and shove in the weight room on a strict diet to bulk them up to NHL size. (NFL fans, feel free to draw comparisons between the Leafs approach, and Philadelphia Eagle Head Coach Chip Kelly’s approach, it’s warranted.)
The brilliant thing about this strategy however is its ability to refresh the roster annually. Every year players will leave in exchange for draft picks, a couple young guys might break out from the Marlies roster, and then a couple more guys get signed on 1 year deals. The Leafs acquire picks, the young guys have a carrot dangled in front of them, driving development and blue collar players will see Toronto as a place to earn a better contract elsewhere. It really is a deft approach to roster management.
This feels so wrong. On Wednesday July 1st Toronto traded superstar winger Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh for 3 players(Nick Spaling - 26y/o, Scott Harrington - 22y/o, Kasperi Kapanen - 18y/o) and 2 picks. Toronto also sent Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon and a 2nd round pick, which was acquired from Pittsburgh in the Daniel Winnik trade earlier this year. Toronto retained $1.25M of Kessel’s contract for the next 7 years. Also the 1st round pick acquired from Pittsburgh is lottery protected. At first glance this is a hot steaming mess. Personally I don’t like the trade, however I understand it, and in that sense the nauseated feeling I’m experiencing some what settles.
Context. There are some things that just have to understood before we dissect this. First, Toronto was trading Phil Kessel this summer and that was final. They weren’t going to see if their new coach could fix him or if he might turn it around. He was gone. Personally I’m not a fan of this strategy, it often leads to you taking a deal this is not fair value, simply because you want to move a guy. However given the nature of rebuilding, and the need for a symbolic statement to be made, it’s understandable that this was the route they chose. I’m not saying it was the smartest route, but I understand why they took it.
So you’ve decided that you are absolutely moving Kessel, so now where to? Well in the case of Kessel you have to make it happen with 1 of the 8 teams on his trade list. My previous article covers these in depth, but the long and the short of it is that Kessel stacked his list with teams tight to the salary cap limit in order to make trading him damn near impossible. In the end Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were really the only two teams that even had a hope and the Flyers weren’t that interested. So now you have to make a deal with the Penguins. At this point you just have to try and get the most you can out of them, and that’s what the Leafs did.
I can live with Kapanen and Harrington as the prospects coming back, they were the only realistic options that Pittsburgh would part with. I can even live with the salary retention. You needed to get a deal done and the Penguins are tight to the cap. Furthermore the Leafs will be a young team for the next few years, so it’s unlikely they’d find themselves strapped for cap space. What I cannot forgive is the lottery protection on Pittsburgh’s first. You are giving them a prolific goal scorer who, by all accounts, should absolutely dismantle teams playing on Sidney Crosby’s wing. You’ve taken prospect’s who probably will not reach Kessel’s level and you’re eating salary as well. To ensure that the 1st round selection you’ve gotten for Kessel is no higher than 15th overall is idiotic to say the least. If by some act of god, the Penguins miss the playoffs with a roster that has Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, Letang and Fleury, that is their own dumb fault and missing out on a lottery pick is the tax you pay for mismanaging a roster with so much high end talent. Accepting this term is inexcusable by Toronto, and it would best suit them to trade that 1st A.S.A.P. for a young talented roster player. Do not let this come back and bite you in the ass. If the Penguins miss the playoffs, this trade gets exponentially worse for the Leafs.
Kapanen could surprise us and be a top line forward, most though are currently projecting him to fall into a top 9 role. He’s not even 19 yet, so there is still plenty of time for that to change and for him to improve. Harrington being 22 is a little further along and appears to be a bottom 3 defenseman. A less than inspiring return for Kessel at a position of need, but again, a player who could surprise us. Apart from Nick Spaling, the entire return on this trade is currently filed under ‘wait and see’, so that’s what we’ll have to do.
Two weeks ago, it was perfectly acceptable for Leaf fans to suggest that perhaps Kessel and Phaneuf would still be here in October, while Bozak and Lupul could be moved. Throw in some young Marlies and some solid UFA signings and maybe with Babcock at the helm the Leafs could be competitive. Maybe even playoffs (because in our heart of hearts, we’re all blind optimists to an extent). With 1 trade though that dream has been dashed. The Leafs are in for the long haul here. It seems highly unlikely to me that any Leaf will crack the 60 point mark next year, and I expect the Leafs to be a very low scoring team. That being said I do expect a significant improvement defensively and with the team’s possession numbers. Goaltending should also be solid as Bernier develops into a true number 1, hopefully.
Before I wrap this up, I should stress one thing. Despite my moans and gripes about the Kessel trade, I do agree with the strategy the Leafs are implementing. The Leafs will be a low scoring team for the next few years who plays strong in their own end but can’t do much in their opponents end. This defensive focus will trickle down through the development process with the Marlies. Two to three years from now, after a couple losing seasons without any semblance of offensive ability there will be a massive insurgence of youthful skill starting with the likes of Nylander, Brown, Kapanen and Marner.
This is the point of the rebuild. To climb this mountain in front of us. It will be arduous, frustrating and at times we may doubt the worthiness of the climb. However if we can endure and reach the top it could bring a level of success and pedigree to this team that has not been experienced in decades. If we want to enjoy the view from the top of the mountain we must endure the climb. The next 3 years will be that climb. Be patient Leaf fans, as there is nothing sweeter than looking down on the rest of the hockey world.
Rob McPhee - @RobMcPhee on twitter.
P.s. Nobody gets to even so much as moan when Kessel puts up 100 points next year playing with Crosby. You all asked for this so be quiet.