By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 8th) – Debating the transaction that brought Phil Kessel to the Maple Leafs from the Bruins on Sep. 18, 2009 is a pastime in this hockey-crazed environment, even though the returns are practically unassailable. During Fast Phil’s three seasons in blue and white, the Leafs have missed the playoffs by 12 points, eight points and 12 points. Boston has already won the Stanley Cup.
On a number of occasions, Leafs general manager Brian Burke has been asked the bizarre and patently ridiculous question of whether – in hindsight – he would make the same deal. Why any person with even half a brain would expect Burke to say “No, I blew it” with Kessel still wearing a Toronto uniform defies even the limited hockey rationale in Leaf land. The precise feeling Burke has about the trade is likely never to be acknowledged. One can only imagine, however, the indignity a person might have incurred had he suggested to Burke – in the aftermath of the deal – that Leafs would miss the playoffs by a considerable margin in each of Kessel’s first three years; would yield the No. 2 overall draft pick to Boston in 2010; would watch the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in Tyler Seguin’s rookie season and would fold like a cheap tent in a wind-storm down the stretch of the 2011-12 NHL schedule.
PHIL KESSEL EMBARKS ON WINNING SHOOT-OUT ATTEMPT IN ST. LOUIS LAST NOV. 9
That, folks, was hardly the plan the day Burke corralled Kessel. And it has nothing to do with the 24-year-old native of Madison, Wisc., who has flawlessly provided Leafs what any reasonable hockey observer might have anticipated: streaky, yet substantial goal production; world-class skating and stick-handling, and a lightning-quick release. At no point – before or after the trade – was Kessel going to be an eloquent spokesperson or the rare type of individual whose presence can inspire teammates and lift an inferior club to unexpected achievement.
Therefore, Burke’s only recourse now is to cut his losses.
He cannot build the Leafs around Kessel today any more than he could engender a short-cut to the playoffs by acquiring the former Bruin three years ago. Both were among the GM’s expectations; neither came close to fruition. But, the initiative and chutzpah required to make a trade is still very much a part of Burke’s repertoire – boldness developed long before his arrival in Toronto. He’s pulled off a couple of dandies with the Leafs (Dion Phaneuf from Calgary; Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner from Anaheim) – and potentially a third (James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn) – without throwing away first-round picks. Kessel must now be at the absolute forefront of strategy aimed at returning the Blue and White to playoff contention.
Unless the Leafs make enormous strides before the end of February next season, Burke has to trade his sharp-shooter for a package of useful commodities. If Kessel is healthy and scoring at his usual pace, he’ll be a phenomenal addition for any team with Stanley Cup designs; particularly one that needs an offensive spark.
At the trade deadline, the talented forward will have just more than a year remaining on his current pact – with a salary and cap-hit of $5.4-million in the 2013-14 season. By today’s standard, that sum is a pittance for a young, natural scorer capable of 35 to 40 goals. As a superb closing ingredient, Kessel could attract the Leafs an infusion of player depth, thereby counterbalancing the folly of Burke’s draft-pick expenditure.
Disaster could only ensue if Burke bows to his Achilles heel – stubbornness – and determines he must “show the world” by signing Kessel to a contract extension. The same line of thinking that urges the Toronto GM to insist he has the “greatest goaltending coach” God ever produced – in spite of even trace-evidence here in town – would doom the Leafs for good if applied to Kessel.
Otherwise, one of the most harmful trades in franchise history may yet produce a silver lining. To this point, Kessel is every-bit the goal-scoring equivalent of Rick Nash… without the contract noose. If next February, Leafs are again beyond the fringe of playoff domain – hardly an absurd notion – Kessel could be among the most sought-after deadline targets in recent memory, providing Burke a chance to legitimately move his team forward.
WILL BURKE PURSUE DOAN?
The leadership void that prevented the Maple Leafs from halting their death-spiral last season could be addressed beginning on Monday, providing a) Shane Doan submits to unfettered free agency; b) Doan has any desire to play in Toronto, and c) Brian Burke makes a serious pitch for the long-time captain of the Phoenix Coyotes. As with Burke’s pursuit of Martin Brodeur last week, this would be a short-term quest aimed at infusing the young, inexperienced Leafs with instant character and credibility. Doan has long ranked among the most venerated figures in the NHL, and he can still play the game at nearly 36 years of age. If he’s amenable to finishing his splendid career in this city, Burke and David Nonis should quickly be on the blower to Terry Bross, a long-time baseball agent based in Arizona who now represents Doan.
SHANE DOAN (19 ABOVE) HELPED LEAD PHOENIX COYOTES TO THE 2012 WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL, WHERE THEY WERE ELIMINATED IN FIVE GAMES BY LOS ANGELES.
REFLECTION: BARELY SURVIVING
MY 2012 PLAYOFF MARATHON…
This story was intended to be written last month, in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles Kings championship; as a re-cap of the greatest experience in my years covering the National Hockey League. For the first time – and somewhat accidentally – I attended every playoff game of a team that won the Stanley Cup. The closest I had previously come to such a privilege was in 2007, when I covered, for The Fan-590, all 20 post-season matches of the Ottawa Senators, who knifed through Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo in 15 games before getting steamrolled by Anaheim in the Cup final.
Exactly how did I stumble on the L.A. Kings of 2012?
Well, it started with a decision between myself and the Grand Poo-bah of NHL Home Ice on Sirius-XM Radio, Joe Thistel. Joe and I had worked together for many years at The Fan-590 and he graciously welcomed me aboard as a “roving analyst” for the playoffs after a meeting in late-March. With only two Canadian teams qualifying for the Stanley Cup tournament (Ottawa and Vancouver) – and with lots of coverage here in the east – it seemed logical to head west for the Canucks-Kings opening-round series… expectation clearly being that the defending Conference champions would swiftly dispatch the No. 8 seed and embark on another Cup challenge.
It required all of two games to determine I was indeed following a Stanley Cup threat – but not Vancouver. When the visitors marched into Rogers Arena and destroyed the Canucks in the opening two matches, I emailed Joe and said, “Something silly could be developing here with the Kings. Lets’s keep tabs on it.” Several days later, after Jarret Stoll had scored in overtime in Vancouver to complete a five-game smack-down of the Canucks, I contacted Joe again and suggested, “I think I should stay with the Kings. If they continue to play anywhere close to this level, no one will lay a finger on them.” At the time, it seemed like a rather premature remark, but there was something about the way Darryl Sutter’s crew annihilated the NHL’s top club in the regular season that came across as an explicit portent. I wouldn’t have bet a nickel on L.A. setting an all-time playoff record by winning its first 10 road games, but the instinct was accurate.
Why, you may ask, did I not write this blog, as planned, four weeks ago? Pretty simple: working is awfully difficult when you can’t breathe.
The sun had already risen above the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles – and my kids were walking to school back home – by the time I settled into bed at the JW Marriott across from Staples Center the morning after the Kings Stanley Cup conquest of New Jersey. It was 5:15 a.m. Pacific; 8:15 a.m. Eastern on June 12. I had half-planned on sticking around L.A. for the Kings victory parade two days later but after a fitful, three-hour nap, I woke up and said, “Enough!!” I had never felt more exhausted in my life. Opening my lap-top, I booked a USAirways flight to Toronto via Charlotte, giving myself three hours to pack up; drive to Los Angeles International Airport; drop off my rental car, and get on the plane to North Carolina.
I FOUND IT RATHER APROPOS THAT AFTER DEPARTING LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT FOR CHARLOTTE ON JUNE 12, WE FLEW PAST LONG BEACH HARBOR (ABOVE). THE BUILDINGS OF DOWNTOWN LONG BEACH, CALIF. ARE AT THE TOP OF THIS PHOTO I SNAPPED AND THE ROUND STRUCTURE IS LONG BEACH ARENA, WHERE BRIAN KILREA SCORED THE FIRST-EVER GOAL FOR THE LOS ANGELES KINGS ON OCT. 14, 1967 AGAINST PHILADELPHIA. MERELY 44 YEARS AND EIGHT MONTHS LATER, THE KINGS WERE STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS. THAT’S THE FAMED QUEEN MARY OCEAN-LINER NEAR BOTTOM OF PHOTO.
All of that came off without a hitch and I was pleased to have my old pal, Steve Keating of Reuters, on the same two flights. Four hours after departing L-A-X, we landed in Charlotte and had enough time to grab some pizza before catching our 10:15 p.m. connector to Toronto. I collected my suitcase at Pearson Airport; hailed a limo, and was in my Thornhill home just after 1 a.m. on June 13.
Leaving L.A. quickly turned out to be an extremely fortunate call on my part.
I woke up in a panic the following night after a re-flux episode; trust me, it is not at all pleasant having Hydrochloric acid in your throat at 3 o’clock in the morning. A couple or three Tums tablets settled me down and I drifted off to sleep once again. When I regained consciousness just after 8:30 a.m., I felt as if I’d been hit by a bus. I stumbled to the bathroom; stuck a thermometer under my tongue, and was not at all surprised when it read 102.1 F. If anyone were ever a candidate for a knock-out flu, it was your 53-year-old correspondent – coming off two months of travel that ended with four cross-continent trips between California and New Jersey. I swallowed as much Tylenol as permitted and fell back into bed.
By late-afternoon the following day, I was in trouble. I said to my wife: “I don’t know what it feels like to die, but it can’t be much worse than this.” Every bone in my body ached and I battled waves of nausea. Most alarming was an inability to draw in a full breath. It was a laborious process and my lungs would stop me about half-way. Susan quickly drove me to York-Central Hospital in Richmond Hill and after an agonizing wait, an intravenous line filled me with salt-water and Morphine – the latter to calm my breathing. I staggered in for a chest x-ray and was told – 45 minutes later – that I had a “large fluid build-up of Pneumonia” in the central-right lobe of my lung.
“No big surprise with the amount of flying you’ve just done,” claimed the Emergency Room doctor. “You’re a bit run-down and somebody coughed or sneezed on you. Can happen to anyone. Take this antibiotic for 10 days and you’ll feel better.” The guy was talking to me as if I’d come in with a sprained ankle, but I guess he’d seen it before.
Rationally, I suppose my flight-log during the playoffs was a pre-cursor to some form of illness. Along with every game involving the Kings, I covered Game 7 of the Devils-Panthers opening-round series in Sunrise; Game 5 of the Blackhawks and Coyotes in Glendale AZ and the clinching Game 5 in the West semifinal, at Glendale, between Nashville and Phoenix. My crazy excursion of 23 post-season flights began Apr. 10; ended June 12, and went like this (with connections):
TORONTO to VANCOUVER to LOS ANGELES to PHOENIX to VANCOUVER to TORONTO to FORT LAURDERDALE to CHARLOTTE to ST. LOUIS to PHOENIX to LOS ANGELES to PHOENIX to TORONTO to PHOENIX to LOS ANGELES to PHOENIX to TORONTO to NEWARK to LOS ANGELES to NEWARK to PHOENIX to LOS ANGELES to CHARLOTTE to TORONTO.
Slowly but surely I began to recover from my lung infection, but not before missing the NHL draft for the first time since 1990 and only the second time since it became an arena event in 1981 at the old Montreal Forum. For posterity, here are links to the photo-blogs I designed after each of the 20 games played by the Kings en route to their first Stanley Cup title. It was a blast!
PHOTO I TOOK (ABOVE) OF SCENE ON THE ICE AT STAPLES CENTER AFTER KINGS WON THE STANLEY CUP OVER NEW JERSEY, JUNE 11. THAT’S CAPTAIN DUSTIN BROWN BEING INTERVIEWED AT BOTTOM. BLOG LINKS ARE BELOW.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]