I don't usually expound on events outside the immediate purview of the Habs themselves, but this whole Phil Kessel thing has me thinking. It's not every day a major pain-in-the-ass Habs killer shifts from one hated rival to another, so it's been on my mind. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder what's wrong with Phil Kessel?
Kessel was drafted fifth overall in 2006. Fifth. Top-five picks don't fall into a team's lap every day unless they suck out loud for years (hey, Pens, how's it going?) or they're lucky enough to win a post-lockout draft lottery. So, when a team gets a top-five pick, it's usually hoping it lands a player who will become a big part of its future. When that player pans out almost right away, scoring 36 goals at only 21 years of age, a team should be dancing in the streets and moving heaven and earth to make that player happy.
So what went wrong between Kessel and the Bruins? The stories we've been hearing indicate Kessel wanted more money than Chiarelli was willing to pay. I thought that was odd. Usually, if a team is lucky enough to land a guy with that kind of skill, money is the least of its worries. If the cap's an issue, most teams would move an older player to make room for the young phenom it's drafted and developed in its own system. That the Bruins didn't do that for Kessel was a strange thing indeed. That they're paying older guys like Michael Ryder to score fewer goals while letting their home-drafted budding star walk tells me not all is right with young Mr.Kessel. And, on Kessel's side, he's a young player just starting to make a name for himself and fortunate enough to be part of a stacked team with a real chance to make a splash in the playoffs. Most players want to go to a team like that, not walk away from it.
Think about it: This is the equivalent of the Habs moving Carey Price for draft picks now, when he's got his whole career ahead of him. Hard to imagine, right?
When I started thinking about this, I remembered reading about Kessel in the run-up to his 2006 draft in Gare Joyce's book, "Future Greats and Heartbreaks." The talk amongst scouts at that point was that Kessel was a really talented kid with a piss-poor attitude. Joyce sat in on Kessel's interview session with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and wrote this about what happened there:
Kessel is barely in his seat before he's pressed, before he is sweated.
"Teammates," Boyd prompts.
"Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"No," Kessel says.
How couldn't he? Everyone in the room knows what Boyd is talking about. Kessel has a reputation for being disliked by his teammates wherever he has played.
And, clearly, Kessel does know what Boyd is talking about. At the end of a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, a few seconds while the clock was ticking, more loudly for Kessel than the team, he starts talking.
"I don't have a problem with my teammates."
Another uncomfortable silence.
"I don't have a problem with Jack Johnson."
Another uncomfortable silence.
"I had lunch with him practically every day."
Kessel is cracking. Now it's not answers. It's explanations. And rationalizations. And excuses. Hard to imagine it going worse.
So, here we are nearly four years after that draft, and a season since Kessel's breakout year in the NHL. He seemed to have put all the doubts around him as an 18-year-old behind him as he proved he can play...and play well...with the best. But has he really progressed beyond that early attitude? A team doesn't re-up a 22-goal scorer like David Krejci and let its 36-goal man walk for a couple of draft picks unless that guy is a problem within the team.
It smells to me like maybe Kessel hasn't changed much from the kid who got drafted on talent, despite the fact that teams knew his reputation as a team player was seriously lacking. I think Chiarelli grabbed what he could in exchange for a guy who might have proven to be a big, talented headache in the Bruins' room.
Now, there's Brian Burke, in charge of the "rebuilding" leafs, giving up two first-rounders and a second for Kessel. On the surface, it's not a totally bad gamble. You can't predict whether a first-rounder will ever pan out, and Kessel's already proving he can put up good NHL numbers as a 21-year-old. Burke rightly points out that he's had some success in attracting undrafted free agents, which means he's adding roster players without wasting picks or prospects on acquiring them. So, even though he's rebuilding, he's arguing that giving up those picks for a guy like Kessel's not a bad thing. The factor he's removing from the equation though, is the real reason why the Bruins got rid of a guy with Kessel's talent in the first place.
The leafs got themselves a good goal scorer with speed in Kessel. But it sounds like they've also inherited a guy whose teammates don't like him and who managed to buy himself a one-way ticket out of the town that drafted him after only two NHL seasons. Maybe he'll be different in Toronto. Maybe he'll score forty or fifty goals and be the centre of leaf fan adoration, while not alienating yet another room full of teammates. We'll see.
We can only hope he continues to do whatever put him on the express train out of Boston, and turns the leaf dressing room into a pit of infighting and controversy. That way, Phil Kessel will bugger up the leafs by his presence and the Bruins (who'll miss those 36 goals) by his absence. As a Habs fan, this trade could be the best of all worlds. So, keep it up, Phil. Whatever it is you do to turn friends into enemies, keep it up.