Monday, September 21, 2009

Pawning Kessel:

Habs Rivals Equalize Talent Levels

A few weeks ago I wrote with glee about the way the Bruins were playing with fire as they looked set to lose Phil Kessel. Well, it's done now, they've gone and lost him – albeit with some hefty compensation.

On the other side of the trade sit the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose GM decided that 4 months was enough time to rebuild a non-existent farm system and has given up on drafting in the first round for a few years.

Who won the trade?

Well, technically, Toronto did. They got a 22-year-old 36 goalscorer for 3 chances at landing an 18-year-old future 36 goalscorer. When you consider Toronto's actual drafting record, where promising (to be adequate) defenceman Luke Schenn stands out as a beacon of excellence, then Burke looks even more like a genius.

Ridiculing the Bruin aside, Kessel is a big fish to land for anyone. And should he continue to produce anywhere near the level he has so far for the next decade of his career, then this is a massive move for the Leafs. Even if he simply maintains his 2008-09 production for the next 5 years, this trade is a win for Burke.

I say Burke because Kessel is an asset to the new GM, while those 3 draft picks likely never would have been. If an average GM has a lifespan of 5-6 years, then Brian Burke is right to concern himself with what will be happening in that term.

Burke won, Kessel won, but did Toronto?

This question is harder to answer. The consensus opinion seems to be that the answer to this question is still up in the air and probably will be right until the end of next season when we can see how Kessel plays and how those draft picks fall in the order.

An optimist would say that Toronto landed a marquis player and someone to anchor their youthful offense for years. Someone with a more pessimistic (even realistic) slant on things may say they pulled out of the rebuilding mode very prematurely. Because nothing very positive happened until the 2008 draft, the Leafs essentially landed Schenn and Kadri along with a few college alums (who are getting far too much shine put on them from Burke, after all they’re all glorified Brock Trotters).

Yes, technically the Leafs did add young talent, but not to be missed is that teams like Pittsburgh and Washington already have better young talent, and the Islanders and Thrashers have added better talent than the Leafs. By pulling up light on the rebuild, has Burke taken a perennial 8th place battler and made another perennial 8th place battler? He certainly has risked that on Kessel’s progress.

Boston lost, but not this week

Though Toronto must be winners here, to say Boston lost this trade is disingenuous. They lost a long time ago when they priced Kessel out of their salary structure, yes. But to them Kessel had flown, so any return was welcome. To turn any return into two potentially very high first rounders and a second.

If I were a Bruins fan, (after patting myself on the back 300 times) I would be happy with my GM in so far as the trade goes. After all, Kessel was lost. He could have been lost to the Hurricanes or the Penguins, but instead Chiarelli squeezed a extra first pick out of it – and made sure the picks came from a pretty average-to-bad team (not a conference contender, even with Kessel).

The fact remains for Bruins fans, however, that their team is worse by a fair distance today than it was 4 months ago. Gone is the only innately talented goalscorer on the squad. Left is the hope that Ryder will repeat his very best, Wheeler will somehow develop and Lucic will be more than a teenager obsessed with creating a reputation for himself. It’ll be tough. The ripples of no Kessel will be felt, and the likelihood of a 30-odd game point streak happening again is slim.

Rivals are winners too

Rivals of these two teams are on balance also all winners. As mentioned, the Bruins are worse, and will have trouble repeating as they try to milk perfection from Thomas and Krejci again. Toronto are better, but being bad to begin with means they’re still well in the mix.

The biggest winners here are probably the Caps and the Penguins, who both now stand head and shoulders above their Eastern rivals in scoring and explosive potential. Teams like the Hurricanes and Devils also win as they now boast equal, if not greater talent to the Black and Gold.

Finally, teams in the Northeast will benefit from a Boston that’s more beatable and a lot easier to defend against for everyone. It should offset an extra Toronto win as a result of Kessel’s 60 games. The Habs among them, who never cared what Toronto looked like anyway (and would always allow 6 goals an outing to them), will like that Boston won’t have a player that can pick on Carey Price’s weak glove at will – perhaps a season sweep isn’t on the cards again this year.

The Mike Cammalleri effect

After famously failing to land his Toronto phenom on draft day, Brian Burke must surely have been looking to do something with his forward group on July 1 (else he's a much worse GM than even I thought). Rumours at the time led one to believe that the focus from Toronto's end would be turned towards Ontario native Mike Cammalleri.

Well we all know who won that race. But perhaps what we didn't appreciate at the time was the effect that it would have on our divisional rivals.

But Cammalleri is older you say?

Well yes he is. However, both he and Kessel are signed to 5-year contracts, not lifetime ones. Both have already shown their willingness (or drive) to change teams and neither looks like a lifelong anything. So when it comes down to it, the fact that Cammalleri might be 32 when his contract retires and Kessel 27 is pretty meaningless. Both will be playing some of their prime years with the teams as 30-goalscorers with aspirations of more.

Consider for a second that July 1 Brian Burke delivers 39-goal man Cammalleri to his team's faithful. He would have upgraded his forward corps (just as with Kessel), but for free. Burke would have retained his draft picks.

Instead, Gainey signs Cammalleri and creates the need in Toronto for Kessel (credit to those who signed Havlat, Hossa and Gaborik as well). His quick action for once on July 1, has led us to this trade where two division rivals both make significant sacrifice and take on risk. What Toronto is rejoicing over now could have been had for free two months ago. By creating the need for Kessel in Toronto, other GMs (including Gainey) also ensured that Phil’s lasting desire to depart would be met by a willing bidder – thereby ensuring Boston would be a weaker team this season.

Perhaps it wasn’t all as calculated as that. Whether it was or wasn’t, that is what has now happened. That is what we can now quietly smirk about.

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