Can Kessel/Phaneuf Leafs Win Cup?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 28) – David Nonis has thrown down the gauntlet.

Like Brian Burke – his mentor and predecessor as general manager of the Maple Leafs – Nonis is wagering that Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf can lead Toronto out of Stanley Cup purgatory for the first time in nearly half-a-century. And, he’s wagering a mighty chunk of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment currency on the veteran tandem – as much as $105 million over the next seven years; or a combined $15 million of salary cap space per season. For historic perspective,that amount would have bought all six NHL expansion teams in 1967 (California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues), with $3 million left to spend. The aforementioned clubs have since combined to win seven Stanley Cup titles – merely seven more than the Maple Leafs in the past 46 years.

So, what return can we expect from the Kessel/Phaneuf Leafs?

Evidence, to this point, is rather underwhelming. Since the trade with Boston for Kessel in September 2009 – Phaneuf arrived from Calgary 4½ months later – Leafs have made the playoffs once in four seasons; have not won a playoff round, and are anything but a lock to appear in the Stanley Cup tournament this spring. That doesn’t automatically equate to a strategic and financial blunder by Nonis, but neither does it offer tangibility. Chicago Blackhawks, for example, first won a Stanley Cup before spending gazzilions on Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Vancouver Canucks made it to the Cup final as a perennially strong team before committing more oftheir future to Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Nonis, by comparison, is banking on the purely imaginable: That Kessel and Phaneuf can be king-pins of at least a second-round playoff team here in Toronto… and ultimately more.

LEAFS CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF LOOKS TO SCREEN BUFFALO GOALIE RYAN MILLER DURING 4-3 SHOOTOUT WIN OVER SABRES AT AIR CANADA CENTRE FRIDAY NIGHT. CLAUS ANDERSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM 

Such a blueprint would not have raised many eyebrows before the current season. Leafs appeared to make significant progress during the lockout-abbreviated schedule a year ago and obviously should have upset Boston in the opening playoff round. Continued development was expected in many corners – this one included – when the puck dropped, Oct. 1, at the Bell Centre between Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. Nearly three months later, though, Leafs are in a quagmire – far from the worst team in the NHL but trending perilously in a one-step-forward-two-step-backward gait. Without question, the club has regressed in Randy Carlyle’s first full season behind the bench, having prevailed only once in regulation time over the past 19 games. Committing a season to overtime and shootout success is tempting fate to the extreme – particularly given the tie-breaking import of regulation victories.

Through it all, Kessel and Phaneuf have mirrored the club with only flashes of on-ice leadership and performance. Kessel will always be Kessel – a streaky scorer with phenomenal skating ability and hands that garner between 35 and 40 goals a season. In relative terms – given today’s NHL economy – he is worth his $8 million price tag. There has not been, however, an intangible quality to Kessel; the sort of team-lifting character so prevalent in Toews and Kane, who perform consistently well through 82 games and always seem to provide the Blackhawks big, timely goals. Phaneuf is a warhorse that eats up nearly half-a-game’s worth of ice time. He’s evolved into a terrific captain and spokesperson for the Maple Leafs – fabulous in the community – but his prime NHL years, to this point, were at the beginning of his career in Calgary. A $7 million defenseman should be a shoe-in to appear with Canada’s elite on the Winter Olympics stage, yet Dion seems to be, at very best, a long-shot for the upcoming Games in Sochi, Russia.

PHIL KESSEL SPEEDS AWAY FROM DEFENSEMAN JAY BOUWMEESTER DURING LEAFS GAME AT ST. LOUIS GAME ON DEC. 12. DILIP VISHWANAT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

In the big picture, there is logic behind Nonis securing Kessel and Phaneuf. The former is a remarkable talent and the latter a big, often physical presence that Carlyle can safely deploy in any situation. But, can Leafs successfully build around the tandem? Can Kessel, Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul become the nucleus of a Stanley Cup winner, as Kane, Toews and Keith have in Chicago? Or, as Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara have in Boston? For $15 million a season, Maple Leafs should expect nothing less from their two highest-paid players.

Otherwise, the championship drought will continue, unabated.

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