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Bruins trade Kessel to Leafs for draft picks

by Brian Hunter
It was a difficult deal to get done, but Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke stuck with it, and on Friday night he got his man.

Burke continued his revamping of a franchise that hasn't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2003-04 season, acquiring 21-year-old center Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a pair of first-round draft picks and a second-rounder.

The trade was contingent on Kessel signing a contract with his new team, which he did by agreeing to a five-year deal worth $27 million.

Kessel was in Toronto on Saturday for an introductory press conference. He thanked Burke and Senior Vice President David Nonis in his opening statement for making the deal and expressed his excitement at putting on a Leafs sweater.

"It's the best hockey city in the world," Kessel said when asked why he specifically wanted to come to Toronto. "The fans here are great. It's a first-class organization. They just love hockey here in Toronto."

Kessel, who turns 22 on Oct. 2, has already overcome testicular cancer and emerged as a future star in just three NHL seasons. The fifth pick in the 2006 Entry Draft debuted with the Bruins the following season and had his breakthrough year in 2008-09, scoring 36 goals as Boston finished first in the Eastern Conference.

Rotator cuff surgery in the offseason has Kessel sidelined until at least November, but he expressed confidence he will be fully healthy by that time.

"My shoulder's doing well. I started skating probably about a week ago, shooting pucks around," Kessel said. "I'm going to check in here with the doctors either today or tomorrow. Hopefully a month, month-and-a-half, I'm ready to go again."

Burke, who took over the reins in Toronto last November, made it a point to add size and toughness at the draft and through free agency this summer. Now he adds scoring touch to a team that was led last season by Jason Blake's 25 goals.

"Phil's been in the National Hockey League for three years. I think our view is that he's already accomplished quite a bit for a young man his age," Burke said. "We think the 36 goals from a year ago is really a platform, not a peak, as far as what he can accomplish.

"He's gotten dramatically better each year. He's dealt with some personal adversity. I've watched his personal maturation and growth as a young man from a real shy kid his draft year to a guy who's much more outgoing and much more comfortable as a professional athlete in my view."

Both Burke and Kessel's new coach, Ron Wilson, have previous experience with him through the U.S. National Team. Addressing the trade Friday night after the Leafs' 4-3 preseason win in Pittsburgh, Wilson sounded like a guy who couldn't wait to get his new player into the fold.

"He's going to add some speed. He's a sniper. Obviously, if there's an area that might be lacking at the moment it would be a proven goal scorer, somebody who can make things out of nothing," Wilson said. "And that's not underestimating what I think a guy like Jason Blake can do this year or [Niklas] Hagman … we do have 20-goal scorers in the mix. But it's nice to have somebody who's really on the upside of things, scored 36 goals last year. He only averaged 16-and-a-half minutes a game. If I can get him up in the 20-minute neighborhood, always out on the power play, I think he can be quite successful."

A restricted free agent, Kessel was looking for the sort of contract the Bruins, already up against the salary cap, couldn't afford, but which the Leafs were willing and able to give.

"When I talked to Phil (Friday) night, he said, 'I intend to earn every penny, and I won't let you down.' And that's how we feel about this young man," Burke said.

Kessel stressed that his departure from Boston had nothing to do with an unhappiness with the system or coach Claude Julien, who once benched him for three playoff games against Montreal in the 2008 postseason.

"I never one time asked to be traded," Kessel said. "I think it just became a mutual thing that was best for both parties to move on."

Toronto's interest in Kessel dated as far back as this summer's draft, when the Leafs were reportedly set to send defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the Bruins in return. Miscommunication over a draft pick to be included in the trade was blamed for it eventually falling apart, but Burke remained dogged in his pursuit and it finally paid off.
"It's the best hockey city in the world.  The fans here are great. It's a first-class organization. They just love hockey here in Toronto." - Phil Kessel

"This is a trade that involved a lot of work and a lot of patience," Burke said. "I want to thank [Boston GM] Peter Chiarelli for his diligence to this trade. I think he got a very high price, as he should, for a player of this caliber."

In the end, the Leafs will give up first- and second-round picks in the 2010 Entry Draft and another first-round pick the following year. The return for a team coming off four straight non-playoff seasons could be enormous.

Kessel has registered 66 goals and 126 points in 222 regular-season games, adding nine goals and 15 points in 15 playoff games.

"We picked seventh this year. We don't intend to pick that high again," Burke said in addressing the picks he gave up. "Obviously when you trade a first-round pick, let alone two, there's risk. I mean, this whole job is a high-wire act without a net. Every deal we make, we're betting on a human being. We're betting on Phil. Taking a chance, that's how it works. I don't think we're taking much of a chance.

"To answer your question, does it push us closer to our goal of making the playoffs? Absolutely. We haven't given anything out of our lineup and we've added a guy who scored 36 goals last year and I think is on the way up, not down."

Kessel is eager to get healthy and start contributing.

"I want to be considered a great player in the League, so I'm going to work as hard as I can and do whatever I can to get there," Kessel said. "I just want to help the team win here. That's the main goal here. It's not individual goals, it's me coming in here and doing whatever I can to help the organization and the team win hockey games."

Material from team online media was used in this report.

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