Kessel deal represents Leafs shift in philosophy

The Leafs are no longer rebuilding.

That’s the message conveyed by Toronto president and general manager Brian Burke as a result of his acquisition of sniper Phil Kessel in Friday’s trade with the Boston Bruins.

When Burke took over the reins of the hockey club just under ten months ago, it appeared that a foundation of stockpiling draft picks and sacrificing short-term success would be in place for at least two or three years.

But the concession of two first round draft picks (2010 and 2011) as well as the Leafs’ second round pick in 2010 confirms the abandonment of the so-called rebuilding phase in Toronto.

Was the price too high?

There is no question that the immediate return on Burke’s most significant transaction as Leafs GM to date is favorable to the Blue and White. Kessel is just two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday and is coming off a breakout season in which he netted an impressive 36 goals, automatically placing him as top-line winger on Toronto’s forward unit. The Madison, Wisconsin native has proven himself as a playoff performer, collecting 15 points in as many career post-season games.

Moreover, Kessel has evolved as one of the league’s top shootout performers, having scored 9 game-deciding shooting goals since the tiebreaker format was adopted in 2005-06 which places him among the league-leaders in that statistic. His deft breakaway moves will undoubtedly ignite his new squad as the Leafs desperately strive to improve on their all-time shootout record, which currently stands at a dismal 16 wins and 25 losses.

Whether the Leafs overpaid to land their potential superstar depends on the relative placement of the draft picks, which is of course tied to the team’s overall success. Should Toronto end its run of four consecutive playoff absences, the first round picks dealt to Boston will likely be in the 16th-20th overall range, making the Leafs’ outlay less expensive.

However, should the streak of post-season futility – the longest in team history – continue, the Leafs will have surrendered a pair of potential top 10 picks in addition to the second-rounder. One only needs to look at the emergence of young blueliner Luke Schenn (5th overall, 2008) and the potential of current training camp hopeful Nazem Kadri (7th overall, 2009) to appreciate the enormous opportunity cost of the picks that were dealt away.

Burke conceded that the price for Kessel was steep, commending his counterpart Bruins’ GM Peter Chiarelli on driving a hard bargain.

However, true to the form that he has exhibited with his previous teams – Hartford, Vancouver and Anaheim – Burke has placed his stamp on the team with a gutsy roll of the dice.

“We picked 7th this year, and we don’t intend to pick that high again,” Burke told a gathering of reporters the day after landing Kessel. “Obviously when you trade a first round pick, let alone two, there’s risk. This whole job is a high wire act without a net. You’re betting on a human being.

We’re betting on Phil and we’re taking a chance. That’s how it works.”

In the span of less than a year, Burke has transformed the Leafs from indifferent bottom-feeders near the basement of the league to a team with an expectation of success.

It’s now up to the players to see if they can deliver. Can goalie Vesa Toskala rebound from last year’s forgettable campaign which ended with hip surgery, and can rookie Jonas Gustavsson live up to his reputation as “The Monster?” Are college free agents Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson able to step into their roles as NHL players and ease the burden of the dealing away of three high-quality future draft choices? Can Kessel – coming off rotator cuff surgery – stay healthy enough to continue at his potent scoring pace?

If the answer to these questions is yes, Burke’s high-wire act will be as masterful as any performer underneath the big top.

However, an extension of Toronto’s playoff drought will set the franchise back several more years, toppling Burke off the tightrope with nowhere safe to land.


Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

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