Leafs add by subtracting Kessel

As citizens north of the border celebrated Canada Day, Brendan Shanahan made his first major trade as Leafs president. By dispatching talented but beleaguered winger Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, Shanahan officially declared – from an on-ice personnel perspective – the beginning of what is expected to be an arduous rebuilding process in Toronto.

The Leafs received a modest return from the Penguins in exchange for the two-time U.S. Olympian. Coming to Toronto are forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Spaling and defenceman Scott Harrington.

18-year-old Kapanen – son of NHL alumnus Sami – has represented Finland twice internationally, including the 2013 Under-18 World Championship, winning a bronze medal. Spaling played in all 82 games for Pittsburgh last year and collected 27 points. Harrington was an alternate captain for Team Canada at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship.

A player of Kessel’s stature may have commanded a more highly-touted prospect such as Derrick Pouliot or Olli Maatta. But with Kessel’s $8-million contract severely limiting his mobility, Penguins general manager had the luxury of hanging onto his most prized young assets.

Toronto also receives Pittsburgh’s first round draft pick in 2016, as long as Pittsburgh makes the playoffs.

The transaction serves the Leafs well on a pair of fronts. Despite having to retain 15 per cent of Kessel’s contract as part of the deal, Toronto frees up about $4-million in cap space.

More notably, a player who struggled under the scrutiny of the rabid spotlight is jettisoned from the roster.

The team will certainly miss Kessel’s production. Since 2009-10, only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry and Rick Nash have more goals than Kessel, who has found the back of the net 181 times over that stretch.

But Kessel’s defensive game was a liability, particularly in the past two years following the lockout-shortened campaign.

By moving to a city where Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin garner the most attention, Kessel can remain relatively anonymous.

Meanwhile, Toronto fans shouldn’t expect proportionate return on the trade, as far as the scoresheet is concerned. Kapanen joins a surplus of small forwards on the roster while Spaling appears to be established as a bottom-six forward.

On the blueline, Harrington at just 22 still has plenty of time to develop. Yet it is worth noting that he had difficulty cracking the lineup onto a Pittsburgh defence corps that was depleted of injuries.

From Shanahan’s point of view, the deal was all about instilling a new culture into the dressing room.

“It’s our messaging that what we were doing here as a group wasn’t working,” Shanahan told a group of reporters. “We were setting a bit of a new direction for our club and building it differently. In order to do that you have to turn some very talented players into assets and picks, and it’s our job now to turn those into things of value for this club moving forward. “

While the rebuild in Toronto will take a few years to fully assemble, Shanahan has at least laid out a blueprint, first with hiring coach Mike Babcock, and now by trading the much-maligned Kessel.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

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