Phil Kessel finally got his wish to become a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After a three-month chase, the Leafs finally pulled off a trade to land the 21-year-old Kessel from the division rival Boston Bruins Friday night.
The price was steep. The Leafs gave up their 2010 and 2011 first-round draft selections as well as their 2010 second-round pick to acquire the speedy Kessel, then promptly signed him to a five-year, $27-million (all currency U.S.) pact.
Toronto general manager Brian Burke felt his club needed the goal-scoring prowess of a Kessel and that the cost of the high draft picks was worth the player.
"It was a very costly deal, but to me it makes sense," Burke said after his club beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 in preseason action last night.
"It's a statement to our players that we want to be competitive right now."
Burke wanted to get a deal done early in training camp because he felt that if other teams incurred an injury to a key player this month, that more teams would start pursuing Kessel.
After scoring 30 times in his first two seasons and being benched by Bruins coach Claude Julien in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs, last year Kessel broke out in his third season for 36 goals.
"What makes it possible to expend those picks is two-fold," Burke said. "He's not even 22 yet and he scored 36 goals last year. Second, we feel that some of the players we acquired without giving up picks - [Tyler]Bozak, [Robert] Slaney, [Christian]Hanson, [Jonas]Gustavsson - these are players that were they in the draft would have commanded a high price.
"We feel by stocking the cupboard, we can take some of the cans of the future."
Burke remarked that Kessel will immediately help the Leafs' power play and he is a top shootout player.
The Bruins were embroiled in a summer-long impasse on a new contract for the restricted free agent. Kessel reportedly was seeking a deal worth $4.5-million a season.
But Boston GM Peter Chiarelli never came close to that asking price and instead signed centre David Krejci to a three-year, $11.25-million deal, a move that not only put the Bruins close to the $56.8-million salary cap, but made Kessel's days with Boston numbered.
The Leafs and Bruins first discussed a trade for Kessel at the 2009 NHL entry draft in Montreal in late June, but got their wires crossed on an exchange of draft picks to accompany the deal.
As NHL teams began training camps last week, the Leafs, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild each pursued a deal for Kessel.
Kessel wanted to play for Burke and Toronto coach Ron Wilson all along.
"He told me that he is walking on air," Burke said of Kessel.
Wilson and Burke also are running the United States men's Olympic hockey team that Kessel hopes to make.
"We do have a 20-goal scorer, but it's nice to have somebody on the upside [like Kessel]" said Wilson, who talked to Kessel via phone last night.
The Leafs could have signed Kessel, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet at the cost of a first, second and third-round pick. But Chiarelli stated he had ownership's backing to match any offer sheet, therefore retaining the rights to the player.
The University of Minnesota product was diagnosed with testicular cancer in his rookie season, on Dec. 12, 2006. He missed 11 games to recover from surgery, played in two games in the AHL and scored once before returning to the Bruins. He was given the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey in 2007.
Kessel, who turns 22 on Oct. 2, underwent shoulder surgery last May and is not expected to be ready for action until mid-November. With a $5.4-million salary, Kessel immediately becomes the highest paid player on the Leafs. Next in line are defencemen Mike Komisarek at $4.5-million and Tomas Kaberle at $4.25-million.
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