x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Leafs make right choice in Kessel

From that point-blank perspective, the trade that saw Toronto send a pair of first-round draft picks - in 2010 and 2011 - and a second-rounder in 2010 to Boston in exchange for Phil Kessel makes a lot of sense.

Phil Kessel can score. The Toronto Maple Leafs are desperate for offence. From that point-blank perspective, the trade that saw Toronto send a pair of first-round draft picks - in 2010 and 2011 - and a second-rounder in 2010 to Boston in exchange for Kessel makes a lot of sense. The Bruins were pushing up against the salary cap and would have had to swing another deal had they been successful in re-signing Kessel.

They were not, so they sent the natural-born scorer to Toronto, where the Leafs had the requisite salary cap flexibility and dearth of offence. It is a trade that almost happened at the NHL entry draft last June, but fell through over a miscommunication between the two teams. And it is a trade that never went away, with Toronto general manager Brian Burke openly pursuing the 21-year-old shooter who apparently wanted out of Beantown.

Kessel, the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft, scored 36 goals in 70 games with Boston last year. In three NHL seasons, his goal output has jumped from 11 to 19 to 36, and the Leafs are hoping that trajectory continues. It had better, considering Toronto signed the restricted free agent to a five-year, US$27 million (Dh99m) contract. "This whole job is a high-wire act without a net," said Burke at Kessel's introductory press conference. "Every deal we make we're betting on a human being. We're betting on Phil, we're taking a chance."

The risk involved is that Kessel never becomes anything more than a one-dimensional goal-scorer. Now, that is not such a bad dimension; in fact, it is the type of dimension that causes teams to hand out five-year, $27m contracts. But do not forget that the Bruins coach Claude Julien benched Kessel in last year's play-offs, a decision that probably hastened Kessel's exit from Boston. Julien felt the young right winger was not competing hard enough and that he was playing too much on the perimeter.

Simply put, that is unacceptable behaviour in the NHL post-season, a time when players pride themselves on gutting it out and doing whatever it takes in an effort to win. Kessel also was reportedly knocked last year for not playing through injury, but he was saying all the right things upon his arrival in Toronto. "I'm going to work as hard as I can and try to help get this team into the play-offs," he said. "I want to be considered a great player in this league, and I'm going to work as hard as I can. I'm here to help this team win."

It would certainly make the deal look a lot better, from Toronto's perspective, if the Leafs can achieve at least modicum of success over the next two seasons. The higher they are in the standings, the lower the price they will pay for Kessel. But if things go wonky, they might end up forking over a couple of lottery picks - plus a high second-rounder - in exchange for Kessel. That, simply put, would be too much unless the player turns out to be a frequent 50-goal man. But if the Leafs are moderately successful over the next couple of seasons and the picks they sent to Boston are in the middle of the first round (or later), well, that is a fair price to pay.

And that is what Burke is banking on. The Leafs GM believes his team are better than most give them credit for, and he might be right. He sees a healthy Vesa Toskala, a toughened-up defence corps and promising young forwards, and figures the Leafs will be knocking on the door of the play-offs this season, and will qualify next year. If that is the case, with Kessel in the 30-to-40 goal range along the way, Burke's gamble will have paid off.

smccaig@thenational.ae