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 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.