By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 1) — Happy Canada Day, Leafs Nation. Your team can now begin wobbling toward contention under Mike Babcock.
The new, much–celebrated coach made it clear while negotiating his monster, eight–year deal that the Leafs could not move forward with Phil Kessel. Any fan that paid even cursory attention to the club last season would be hard–pressed to disagree. As such, Fast Phil is a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins — dealt by the Leafs today in a multi–player/draft pick/money–sharing arrangement that undoubtedly begins to re–shape the club here in Toronto. It is, without question, the most involved trade the Leafs have been part of since acquiring Mats Sundin from Quebec prior to the 1994 National Hockey League draft in Hartford.
I have written repeatedly in this corner — dating to last summer — that moving Kessel is addition by subtraction and that a first–round draft pick, by itself, would be a more–than–reasonable return. Well, the Maple Leafs, still without a full–time general manager, did even better.
Here is the complete deal: Kessel, defenseman Tim Erixon, forward Tyler Biggs (Toronto’s first pick in the 2011 draft) and a second–round draft pick in 2016 or 2017 to the Penguins for right–winger Kasperi Kapanen (Pittsburgh’s first–round choice in 2014), defenceman Scott Harrington (second–round pick in 2011), center Nick Spaling (second–round pick by Nashville in 2007) and Pittsburgh’s first and third–round picks in 2016 or 2017. Toronto agreed to retain 15% of Kessel’s salary and cap space ($1.25 million) in the last seven years of his contract.
The draft pick stipulation is as follows: If Pittsburgh qualifies for the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring, Toronto will receive the Penguins’ 2016 first–round draft pick and the Penguins will receive Toronto’s 2016 second–round selection. The second–round pick would be the one Toronto originally acquired from the Penguins for forward Daniel Winnik earlier this year. Should Pittsburgh miss the 2016 playoffs, Toronto will instead receive the Penguins’ 2017 first-round pick, with Pittsburgh getting Toronto’s 2017 second-round selection.
DURING PHIL KESSEL’S TIME WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS, THREE COACHES WERE FIRED: RON WILSON, RANDY CARLYLE AND PETER HORACHEK (ABOVE). MIKE BABCOCK WANTED NOTHING TO DO WITH KESSEL, WHOM THE LEAFS TRADED TODAY TO THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS.
In addition to the first–rounder I suspect was mandatory in any discussion for Kessel, the Leafs get three able bodies. The key figure is Kasperi Kapanen — son of Sami Kapanen, a third–round draft choice of the Hartford Whalers in 1995 who played 12 seasons in the NHL with Hartford/Carolina and Philadelphia. Sami Kapanen scored 189 NHL goals, with seasons of 27, 26, 24 (twice) and 20. He was small, but rather gifted. If lineage becomes a factor for the Maple Leafs, the club will be very pleased with Kasperi Kapanen and its first–round choice from a year ago — Willie Nylander — whose father, Michael, scored 209 NHL goals (with seasons of 26, 25 and 23 twice) in a 17–year career (1992–2009) spent primarily with Chicago and Washington.
Beyond all else, however, moving Kessel was the essential component of any Maple Leafs reconstruction. His time here in Toronto — if remembered accurately — will not evoke fond images. It began with consternation over Brian Burke yielding two first–round picks (Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton) to the Bruins in September 2009; continued through a trio of monumental collapses by the hockey club (late season in 2011–12 and 2013–14, plus the blown 4–1 lead at Boston in Game 7 of the 2013 playoffs) and culminated with an embarrassing lack of performance while the Maple Leafs plummeted through the final two–thirds of last season. Kessel arrived at training camp out of shape for his $10 million payday and then boasted about it to reporters. He was almost exclusively the first player to leave the ice after practice sessions. Having helped to get Randy Carlyle fired, he paid no heed to Peter Horachek’s request for improved defensive awareness and — most egregiously — he stopped scoring goals through the full middle portion of the schedule (only four in 25 games between Jan. 2 and Mar. 1).
Added to this were public comments made by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke and by ex–Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
Last September, while addressing a group of business students at Ryerson University, Leiweke said, “There are players we have in our organization today whose numbers are off–the–chart good, and whose character is just terrible. I don’t care how good your numbers are, if you have bad character, you are doomed for failure.” It required minimal intelligence to determine which “player” Leiweke was referring to.
Then, on Jan. 6 — the day Carlyle was fired by Maple Leafs general manager David Nonis — Carlyle’s predecessor, Wilson, appeared on TSN–1050 Radio here in Toronto and offered a scathing indictment of his former player. “You can’t rely on Phil,” said Wilson. “Phil’s problem — and I think it’s pretty much how Phil’s been his whole career — is that he is two weeks on and two weeks off. When he’s not playing well, he’s a hard guy to get on board and get on your side. It’s just the way it is. He comes and goes and he gets emotional. He lets that affect his game and his relationship with other players. That’s what you have to coach.”
NEW MAPLE LEAFS PROSPECT KASPERI KAPANEN (42) IN ACTION FOR THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS AGAINST THE MINNESOTA WILD IN A PRE–SEASON GAME, SEP. 25, 2014.
Mike Babcock had no intention of being Kessel’s fourth coach with the Blue and White. From the very outset of his negotiation, he pushed hard for Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas to move Kessel before the start of training camp. With the trade happening today, the Leafs can more clearly assess their salary cap situation for next season and beyond.
This is not to indicate, by the way, that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford made a bad deal for Kessel. A change of scenery and, perhaps, an elite center–man may elevate Phil to heights he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) attain here in Toronto. The Leafs haven’t had a legitimate No. 1 pivot since Sundin’s departure after the 2008–09 season. Six years is a long time to be devoid of such a commodity. Sidney Crosby has always held sway with Penguins’ ownership and management and one would have to surmise he is fully on–side with the acquisition of Kessel. Unless Pittsburgh makes a change behind the bench, the burden now falls on second–year coach Mike Johnston to somehow maximize the winger.
The Leafs and Penguins will meet twice in the opening month of the 2015–16 NHL season: Oct. 17 at the Consol Energy Center and Halloween — Sat. Oct. 31 — at Air Canada Centre. Toronto will again play at Pittsburgh on Dec. 30.
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