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Phil Kessel, seen with Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, isn't ready to make his Toronto debut. (Darren Calabrese/CP)
Phil Kessel, seen with Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, isn't ready to make his Toronto debut. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Jeff Blair

Leafs, Burke seize the moment in Kessel deal Add to ...

Here's the thing about acquiring Phil Kessel that needs to be mulled over by people who think Brian Burke has mortgaged the future:

Honestly, isn't it obvious that for the Toronto Maple Leafs to go beyond being a team that simply talks about making the playoffs, a deal of this magnitude was going to have to be made at some point? So why not make it now?

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So Burke pulled the trigger on Friday trading two first round picks and a second round draft pick in exchanged for Kessel.

We all know about the Maple Leafs history of dealing away first-round picks for established players: Tom Kurvers, Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch, the Return of Wendel Clark and Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell all joined the team in deals involving a first pick. All were older than Kessel, and most of the deals reinforced one of the reasons the Leafs have so often been lost in the wilderness. They were one-word deals, that word being: Meh …

And it is true, as Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman pointed out in Sept. 14 on his blog:

http://www.cbc.ca/sports/blogs/2009/09/draft_picks_for_star_player_sc.html,

Friedman writes that most of the deals involving two first-round picks that have worked out in the past 20 years have been made by teams that felt they were reasonably close to winning the Stanley Cup involving the likes of Chris Pronger (twice), Ken Wregget and Eric Lindros and Rob Blake.

But let's look at this from the point of view of Burke, the Leafs general manager. He believes that in signing college free-agents Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak he has added the equivalent of high draft picks who are advanced because of the maturity that comes from playing in college. Are any of them first-line forwards?

Not now, and let's say for argument's sake they won't be. Is there a chance that any of those draft picks turn out to be first-line forwards?

Sure, although if the team improves the way Burke says it will, none of them will be the fourth or fifth pick overall. Plus, even Kessel's detractors admit grudgingly that he is at least a top six forward and having cost certainty (five years, $27 million) for a top six forward isn't exactly market-altering.

What about the notion that the Leafs don't have a Marc Savard for Kessel to play off? True, they don't. And that means … what, exactly?

Don't bother adding any front-line wingers because you don't have a play-making centre? Wait until you find that centre to add the wingers? Hope they materialize out of the blue? Again: a player like Kessel was going to have to be acquired one way or another to make this work.

Another factor that ought to have entered Burke's thinking is that the Maple Leafs window of opportunity is fast approaching. The Bruins aren't better than they were last year. Neither, at first blush, are teams like the Ottawa Senators or Montreal Canadiens. (Again, we're looking at it from Burke's point of view.)

There is a worry with Kessel: his personality and character. At least, that's what the chattering classes say. He's too withdrawn. Not a great teammate. The fact is the grapevine is not kind to Kessel, and it is wholly appropriate to wonder how he will handle life with the Maple Leafs.

Kessel was introduced to the media Saturday night before his new team and the Philadelphia Flyers beat the hell out of each other in what would turn out to be a 5-4 Leafs win in overtime.

Here's hoping he does a better job of filling up a net than he does a notebook.

"I'm not real expressive," he said, without a hint of apology and sounding very much like - well, like a 21-year-old guy who is shy. "I don't go out of my way to talk to people."

But for now it's all good intentions since he's out until mid-November because of shoulder surgery and - geezus - would you all relax about that? The kid isn't a pitcher! Burke said Kessel told him "I intend to earn every penny … I won't let you down."

OK. Burke and Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson are running the U.S. Olympic program and are likely familiar with what is accurate and what is B.S. when it comes to the gravepvine's version of whatever stories are out there about Kessel. Besides, didn't Mikhail Grabovski have, um, issues. too with the Montreal Canadiens?

Burke says he has seen Kessel become more comfortable with his status as a professional athlete, and anybody who has covered sports will tell you there's something to that.

"We think his 36 goals (scored last year) are a platform, not a peak," said Burke. "I've watched his maturation."

Kessel maintained that he never requested a trade from the Bruins - which will come as a shock to Bruins G.M. Peter Chiarelli. He referred to the circumstances of his departure as "a mutual thing," where it became clear it was time for both parties to move on.

Anyhow, up to now it's all words, guesses - and the promise of draft picks. Draft picks.

Look: given the freedom that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's financial clout gives Burke - plus the fact he only has 10 players under contract through next year - it is not out of the question that he will be able to recoup a first-round draft pick by exacting it as a price from another team for picking up somebody's bad or at least hefty contract. Plenty of those floating around, and Burke has the freedom of off-loading some big-money players with his farm team.

Not to go all baseball on you, but just like everybody bitches and moans about how the New York Yankees have the financial wherewithal to cover up their mistakes, so, too, do the Maple Leafs - as much as anybody in the NHL's salary cap era, anyhow. You don't hear Yankees fans worrying, do you? Might be time to follow suit. Isn't this what Toronto wants: a big-market team that acts like one?

 

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