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The Kessel conundrum

With the Leafs’ inconsistency (or something worse than that) flaring again lately, there isn’t much to talk about in Leafland. No possible playoff match-up. No games that mean everything is on the line. No player shooting for a 50-goal season, or an individual award. No big stretch run that means every game is crucial heading toward the playoffs.

Not even a high first-round draft choice in June to dream about.

All we have to look forward to is 10 more weeks of winter (for most of us in the northern part of the world, at least) and debating decisions that have already been made, such as trading for Phil Kessel and giving up first round draft choices in 2010 and 2011in return..

The context for this discussion comes at a bad time, when the team and Kessel have been under water, though beating Philly helps momentarily. (The Bozak goal will be water-cooler talk, and that was a nice feed from Kessel on Kulemin’s marker). Two weeks from now they may be on a major roll, and everyone will be happy with Kessel.

I’ve commented in earlier posts that, in many ways, the trade made—and makes—some sense. I say this simply because, at 22, the Leafs have a player who is past the “prospect/suspect” stage. Kessel is already a bonafide NHL player that other teams prepare for, and may in fact become a full-fledged offensive star. As I’ve also stressed, though, the correctness of Burke’s move largely depends on whether Kessel can do what Mike Modano, Steve Yzerman and others have done before him: become a complete player, and not drive Ron Wilson to despair in the meantime.

As we all know, high first round draft picks don’t always pan out.

Say the Leafs end up with (Boston now owns the pick) the second overall choice this coming June. To provide context, here’s a look at number 2 overall draft choices since 1996:
  •  1996- Andrei Zyuzin
  • 1997- Patrick Marleau
  • 1998- David Legwand
  • 1999- Daniel Sedin
  • 2000- Dany Heatley
  • 2001- Jason Spezza
  • 2002- Kari Lehtonen
  • 2003- Eric Staal
  • 2004- Evgeni Malkin
  • 2005- Bobby Ryan
  • 2006- Jordan Staal
  • 2007- James Van Riemsdyk
  • 2008- Drew Doughty
  • 2009-Victor Hedman
Now some of the players are top-end guys, for sure (Marleau, Staal, Staal); others potential franchise guys (Doughty, Hedman); a few are gifted offensive talents (Spezza, Heatley, Sedin). Some were outstanding right away; others took some time. A few haven’t really excelled at all at this level, at least not yet.

Now, we know who is available this coming June—Taylor Hall and other outstanding prospects. But the past success or failure of high picks is not always an indicator of how things will turn out in future. Who knows if the player the Leafs “would have” picked this coming June will become a better player than Kessel?

Back in 1993, Alexandre Daigle was considered “can’t miss” and he missed. Things happen.

Some questions:
  • How many of the players I mentioned above would Leaf fans trade Kessel even-up for, when they were 22?
  • If we think Kessel is in the mould of, say, a Spezza—offensively gifted, not tough, needs good players to play with—isn’t he the kind of exciting player we normally would love to have in Toronto, assuming he had guys to play with?
  • Will an elite 18-year old drafted in June be appreciably better in four years than Kessel is now?
  • Would Boston reverse the Kessel trade, right now, if they had the choice? (I’m guessing there’s no way they’d give up the high draft picks to take Kessel back. But they are also in a different situation than the Leafs are in.)
All of this doesn’t mean Burke made a bad decision, necessarily. He has said he knew exactly what he was potentially giving up when he acquired Kessel, and he was fine with it.

Two first-round draft choices in the salary cap age is a lot, no question. I would think you’d want to have as much young talent under team control for as long as possible. But again, Kessel is signed long-term, and he’s only 22. He himself was a 5th overall pick.

I’m sure those following this site will have their own views as to whether the Kessel deal—half a year in, makes sense or not. Debating this when things look so dismal for the Leafs may not be fair. You can’t judge the impact of a trade accurately until years down the road.

But as fans, it’s more fun to debate it right now. Especially when there’s not much else to talk about in Leafland.

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