Burke’s dogged pursuit of Kessel, meanwhile, is probably the clearest indication yet that the Leaf GM isn’t looking to effect a slow and gradual building process like what turned Ottawa and later Pittsburgh into elite clubs.

Nazem Kadri might be the lone first-round pick the Leafs select for a while as Burke aggressively tries to first get this team back into the Eastern Conference playoffs next spring and then pushes hard to make it a serious contender quickly.

The Toronto Star, September 7 2009

The irremovable stone monument representing Brian Burke’s signature move in Toronto is covered in pigeon shit on one side of it. No matter what evidence you attempt to offer to the contrary, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be far better off today with what they gave up for Phil Kessel than Phil Kessel himself.

Yet the numbers don’t add up. Kessel has played 234 games in Toronto since the trade, and has scored 99 goals. The players that the three picks used to acquire Kessel became have combined for 175 National Hockey League games in Boston and 45 goals.

(Should mention: Kessel is 25 today, and was just 21 at the time of the trade.)

The season after the Bruins traded away Kessel because they didn’t have the salary cap space to fit him into their roster, they finished dead last in the NHL in scoring, making the playoffs thanks to defence and special teams—the Baltimore Ravens of the NHL. Top scorer? Marco Sturm with 22 goals, a year after Kessel paced the Bruins with 36.

Whatever fell into place for the Bruins after letting go of Kessel, it was from pieces that were already there. The team in the offseason made a great deal for Nathan Horton, dealing away one of their own first round picks in the process. About the only other moves of consequence were trading for Chris Kelly out of Ottawa, then adding to their bottom six dealing Blake Wheeler for Rich Peverley.

The fact the Bruins went from the worst scoring team in the league to one of the most feared offences and Stanley Cup champions could very well prove that there are no quick fixes in the NHL, not when your team is as empty at every position as Toronto’s was when Brian Burke took over.

There was no real way to build the Toronto Maple Leafs. If Burke had refused to make the deal for Phil Kessel, then it sounds like Kessel may have ended up in Nashville, for who knows what. Toronto holds onto that pick, and based on where the ping pong balls flew, Toronto could have Tyler Seguin with them, or Taylor Hall, or perhaps they get the second coming of Boyd Devereaux in the lineup who goes on a second half tear to help the Leafs finish outside of lottery position.

Dougie Hamilton was selected with the No. 9 overall pick. He was ranked at No. 6 by TSN, but the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets all reached below the consensus to grab their own players. While Hamilton looked nothing short of dominant in the first half of the Ontario Hockey League season with the Niagara Ice Dogs, he looked somewhat out of place at the World Juniors. Most of the Canadian defencemen did in a fairly disorganized system, but the point is there’s nothing sure about Hamilton yet. It may very well be that he doesn’t catch on at the NHL level and joins the club of highly-ranked defencemen who never got it together.

Was there a guarantee of those picks turning into highly-regarded prospects? No, the real reason why people best remember the Kessel deal is that the three draft picks Burke gave up all turned into OHLers from Southern Ontario. Don Cherry did not hesitate at any moment to criticize Toronto for being the only team in the NHL without a player from Ontario. Cherry has been a vocal supporter of both Nazem Kadri and Mike Zigomanis, yet they spent most of last year on the farm. Burke didn’t err in having the stones to make a deal right away for a legitimate star player. The most you could hope for any of those draft picks is a player who turned out as good as Phil Kessel is.

The problem is that Burke never surrounded Kessel with NHL talent. It’s been three years and there’s still no legitimate man to play the middle between him and Joffrey Lupul, an oft-injured high-scoring forward with limited defensive capacities. Kessel was the lone wolf on his line last season. He did his job, which is to score goals, without complaint or post-game flare. He’s everything a Toronto could have in a hockey star.

It’s an interesting dynamic in that market, but I think people misstate the importance of that deal when determining the future success of the Leafs. Even with the benefit of hindsight, can we guarantee that Seguin and Hamilton would be better options than Kessel, who has scored more goals than all but nine NHLers in the past three seasons? The answer is no, at least in a vacuum. Seguin and Hamilton are popular “what-ifs” to bring up in Toronto because other than failing to build a playoff roster, Burke neglected the prospect tank. Kadri still waits for his full-time NHL shot, and the Leafs’ remaining draft picks from his four seasons, with the exception of this past summer’s Morgan Rielly, leave much to be desired. Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy are surely NHL-bound, but my own observations is that their ceilings are relatively short. They aren’t “wow” prospects, a high-scoring junior or a player who can take over as face of the franchise from the fairly reserved Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

I think that perspective is key when analyzing Burke’s tenure in Toronto. All-in-all, his hockey legacy is one of making several bad moves that added up little by little, not one singular trade that cost the team four seasons outside a playoff spot singlehandedly.

The likelihood of the Leafs winning the trade is as high as them losing it. If you look at the stone monument from another angle, you miss all the pigeon shit on one side and get a glimpse of the half-finished statue. It’s not particularly nice looking, but it isn’t ugly either. It just sort of exists. Brian Burke’s Toronto legacy will be dissected for years to come, but no one move defines him. The team was underwhelming when he joined the team, and the team he left to his successor Dave Nonis is also underwhelming. His imprint on the hockey team isn’t a positive one or a negative one. It just sort of is.

If Brian Burke could go back and do the Kessel trade again, he probably wouldn’t. I think that would be a mistake. Kessel has been everything he could be in Toronto, and he’s forever tied to Burke’s monument.

Comments (18)

  1. I still don’t know if you can call it an non-failure.

    If Seguin ends up being a much better NHL player and if the Leafs don’t end up with any kind of playoff success with Kessel (or whoever he may be traded for), it’s pretty tough to argue that the trade wasn’t good.

    I mean this isn’t like when the Stars traded Iginla for Nieuwendyk, where they gave up someone who would become a much better player but ended up with a Stanley Cup because of it.

    Just because Kessel has out scored the guys he was traded for doesn’t necessarily prevent this trade from being bad.

  2. In regards to the “THE” trade I don’t believe Burke’s mistake was making the trade. I believe his mistake was badly overestimating how good his own team was. Let’s face it. If the Leafs finished say 7-11th last in that year and Boston drafted a good but not great player with that pick most everyone would be saying… good trade. Sam Pollock said it best and it still applies. Almost every time he who gets the best player wins the trade.

  3. The Kessel deal would have been fine if Toronto hadn’t ended up a cellar-dweller. A 21-year-old Kessel for two low, or even middling first picks is a great deal. The failure is not so much the deal itself, as it is the failure to correctly evaluate the strength of one’s own team.

    Burke could be forgiven in part though, as there was a lot of hype at that point that the Leafs blueline was one of the very best in the NHL (pre-Phaneuf, no less!). That turned out to not quite be the case.

  4. “All-in-all, his hockey legacy is one of making several bad moves that added up little by little…”

    I don’t get this. The Kessel deal is fine, we have a top-10 scorer in his early/mid 20s.

    The Lupul/Gardiner fleecing, the Phaneuf deal, the Giguere deal, all exceptional. Burke’s shortcomings came in spotty UFA signings, stubbornness on goaltending, and lackluster drafts: Kadri’s the only pick in Burke’s tenure to play a shift for TML.

    But look back at the November 2008 roster and see Blake, Hagman, Poni, Antro, Stajan, and Grabbo as the top six, and guys like Finger, Stralman, John Mitchell, and D. Moore playing important minutes.

    This franchise is WAY better off than it was 51 months ago.

    • No question about the fact the team IS better now (talent wise) than when he first came in. If you only look at trades he definetly had more good than bad by quite a wide margin. His UFA signings were iffy at best and his stubborness to not pay (monitarily or in trades) to address the tending situation were not good.

  5. Burke’s failures can be summed up by his failure to accurately evaluate his goaltending and more generally the overall defensive ability of his team (to some extent this was his failure in Vancouver too). If the Leafs had any kind of goaltending and defensive ability the Bruins aren’t drafting Seguin and the trade doesn’t look that bad. If the Leafs had any kind of goaltending or defensive ability, they very well could have made the playoffs at least once during Burke’s tenure. Burke failed in bringing in a goaltender and he failed in finding a shut down defense tandem (Komisarek was a failure as a UFA and for whatever reason Schenn never developed shutdown capabilities).

  6. Phil Kessel is a nice complementary player for a solid team looking for some offensive push. He’s not the guy you build your team around. And goal-scoring is not the be-all and end-all for judging value, though I believe Seguin will be a better goal-scorer than Kessel. Hamilton and Knight are the icing on the cake.

    As we say at the Garden, Thank you Kessel! And Burke too. :-)

    • “Phil Kessel is a nice complementary player”

      Uh, you don’t quite get how the NHL works, do you?

      • No, tell me. I’ve only been following it for 40 years.

        You don’t build a team around a one-trick pony, even if that one trick is scoring goals. You build from the goal out, and down the middle. Goaltending, defense, centers. For example, Thomas/Rask, Chara, Bergeron. For results, see June 2011.

        • Or for that matter, Quick, Doughty, Scuderi, Mitchell, Kopitar, Richards (and Carter, kinda), 2012.

      • All I know is very few cup winning teams get built around a winger or have a wingers as their most important player.

  7. The one glaring issue I had (as a non-Leafs observer) with Burke’s finally trading two 1st-rounders and a 2nd, was that Kessel and Chiarelli were already on the rocks – He had been riding his injured shoulder as an out and there were credible murmurs he’d be pulling a “Heatley Lite”, in Boston that summer.

    The Bruins were a bit tight for cap, and it had been hoped that Kessel didn’t jack them for a big payday, as an RFA – Though, it turned out that young Phil wanted “everything” and he wanted it “now”….At the time, it had been seen as a bit short-sighted – Especially when one considers the role veteran Marc Savard had, in setting up his line-mate with all those those juicy passes, at the right time, and in the right place. Savard was readily considered the best set-up man in the NHL, prior to his unfortunate pair of concussions, and Kessel was his immediate beneficiary.

    Enter Brian Burke, with (what might be considered in hindsight as) an almost oblivious disregard for what almost everyone in the entire league knew was happening in Beantown – Kessel and his agent were playing hardball, and Peter Chiarelli was over a barrel.

    Burke had no good goddamned reason to compensate the Bruins so “generously” – Nay, foolishly.

    Bottom line? Burke WANTED to make a splash, just for the sake of (“Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee” GM vanity) making a splash – “We have our player. And we didn’t have to pull any underhandedness to get him.” Jolly-good show, Brian.

    That! Is the prime issue with the Kessel trade – It could have been a sound one, had Brian Burke not assumed it to be a vainglorious potlatch ritual. In his hubris he gave away the candy store for an iffy (and potentially troublesome) commodity…

    The lingering shoula’s and coulda’s are simply products of what proceeded from this trade, and the nature of its’ architect’s motivations.

    What did Howson get for Rick Nash, again? Yeah. Exactly….

    • Burke couldn’t go the offer sheet not because he opposed them (if you read his complaints about Lowe, they centre about the offer sheet being unexpected not that it happened) but because if he signed Kessel to an offer sheet and Chiarelli matched then he wouldn’t get a player that he considered a vital addition.

      Chiarelli was in tough but because of Kessel’s injury he could have dragged things out into the start of the season if he wanted to and possibly kept him a Bruin. I think part of Burke’s rush was that he wanted to start the season with a settled roster and he needed to know if he was going to have Kessel or not.

      But ultimately, the deal at the time was a good one (show me what teams pay for players of Kessel’s calibre at 21 let alone any age) but the failure was that Burke thought Vesa Toskala was an NHL goalie and that the Leafs were better than they were. Those are problems that plagued him during his entire tenure.

  8. “The problem is that Burke never surrounded Kessel with NHL talent.”

    I think THATS the crux of the argument that clarifies why this trade was bad and why Burke was canned. Even if Kessel was the top scorer of the league, the Leafs still aren’t making the playoffs and thats pretty much the best test for success. Kessel is a great player. I think Burke “won” in the value department of making that trade, but the problem is that the trade doesn’t make any sense when there’s no follow up. One guy isn’t going to turn the team into a contender and that is ultimately the goal.

  9. THANK YOU!
    Man I had a lengthly and heated argument with someone about this just yesterday. Wish I had some of those stats to back me up then. I’ve argued this countless times and I’m getting sick of it. The best line I came up with that the other guy couldn’t refute was: “Burke’s biggest fault was not that specific deal or the price he paid, but rather his gross misjudgement of the quality of his hockey team.”

    From now on I’m going to carry around a copy of this article and force anyone who wants to start that argument again to first read this.

  10. They needed change… blowhardism with media, dumb deals, no ontarions on the roster… i mean…come on… no playoff appearance since what… sundin days?

  11. I sincerely wonder how much this discussion would have changed if the lockout had ended early enough for 24/7 to air as planned.

  12. Lets not kid ourselves here. Both Hamilton and Seguin will be stars for years to come. They are both franchise building blocks. There’s no sugar coating this trade.

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