MONTREAL – The last time Phil Kessel attended a press conference to announce the signing of a long-term contract, he had just been acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Boston Bruins. It was a blockbuster deal for a then 21-year-old forward with obvious talent, but who had question marks surrounding his attitude and work ethic.
The Bruins did not want to give Kessel, a restricted free agent in the summer of 2009, the kind of money he was seeking at that stage of his career and managed to extract what appeared to be a king’s ransom from then Toronto general manager Brian Burke, two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick.
Burke took enormous heat over the trade, especially because those two first-round picks wound up turning into Tyler Seguin (No. 2 in the 2010 NHL Draft) and Dougie Hamilton (No. 9 in 2011).
The five-year, $27 million contract Kessel signed back on Sept. 18, 2009 would have expired July 1, 2014, potentially making him one of the youngest high-level unrestricted free agents in NHL history, and the Maple Leafs had no intention of allowing that to happen.
While Seguin was traded by the Bruins to the Dallas Stars this summer, the Maple Leafs made sure Kessel would remain in Toronto blue and white for nearly a decade by concluding an eight-year contract with the star forward worth a reported $64 million on Tuesday, one day before his 26th birthday and hours before opening the season here against the Montreal Canadiens.
Burke has always insisted he would make the Kessel trade again; it's now safe to say his successor Dave Nonis feels the exact same way.
“If you look at his production, he is a top 10 player; he’s been in the top 10 in scoring, he’s been in the top 10 in goals,” Nonis said at a Bell Centre press conference. “He’s a player that’s put himself in some pretty elite company and he’s done that himself. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we’re paying him and [giving him] the term for this type of player.”
As for Kessel, he’s proven to the Maple Leafs that the reputation he brought with him from Boston was either untrue or that he’s matured since. Either way, no question marks remain about Kessel’s attitude today.
“The one knock that Phil had on him that I thought was totally unfair was that Phil wasn’t a great teammate,” Nonis said. “From the day he got to Toronto, I think we’ve been able to tell that was completely untrue. He’s quiet, he’s not as outgoing as some people in a Canadian market would like, but he’s a great teammate and well-liked by everybody in our room. We wouldn’t have looked to extend Phil if we didn’t think he was a great fit in Toronto.”
Kessel’s contract status risked being a distraction all season, especially considering captain Dion Phaneuf’s contract is also up next July 1. However, unlike Phaneuf, Kessel had made it clear he had no desire to negotiate during the season, so if a deal wasn’t reached Tuesday it would have to wait until the spring, with unrestricted free agency looming not far on the horizon.
While that may have been tempting for someone like Kessel, who would have been the crown jewel among forwards of the 2014 free-agent class, he had a desire to remain in Toronto long term and he expressed that to Nonis late last week.
A few days later, Kessel’s name was on dotted line.
“I’ve always wanted to be here,” Kessel said. “It’s a place I wanted to play; I want to finish my career here. It’s a great city, the organization’s unbelievable.”
Though Kessel made it clear he wanted this settled before the season began, Nonis said the situation was not quite as urgent as Kessel made it sound.
“There is pressure that comes with eight years, there is pressure that comes with the money that he’s getting, and he understands that,” Nonis said. “He’s a pretty confident guy. You probably don’t get the chance to talk to him one on one in a private setting, but Phil is comfortable. He was comfortable if we didn’t sign him, he was comfortable going the rest of the year and testing free agency. He didn’t want to, but it wasn’t where he was desperate to get a deal done, I can tell you that.”
Over the last two seasons, Kessel’s 134 points in 130 games ranks fourth in the NHL. He trails only Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers. Kessel’s 89 goals over the last three seasons are fourth behind Stamkos (134), Corey Perry (102) and Alex Ovechkin (102).
“If you look at his goal totals and his point totals over the last two and three seasons,” Nonis said, “he’s up there with some pretty elite players.”
His offensive production aside, Kessel has shown an ability to adapt as a player as well since Randy Carlyle took over as coach of the Maple Leafs on March 2, 2012. Carlyle said he identified a need to change Kessel from a “one-dimensional” player who created things strictly off the rush into a player that was able to create out of the cycle and play more along the boards.
In a word, Carlyle wanted Kessel to be more complete.
He’s come through.
“There were some things that we felt he had to change,” Carlyle said. “We asked him to change it, and we’re looking at a different athlete today than we were a year and a half ago.”
Kessel’s performance in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, Toronto’s first trip to the postseason since 2004, further cemented just how different an athlete he’s become. Facing his former team the Bruins, against whom Kessel had always struggled, he shone with four goals and two assists to help lead the Maple Leafs to Game 7 of the first-round series.
Though Toronto blew a 4-1 third period to lose the deciding game, Kessel had proven he was ready to lead the team when it counts most.
“His desire to win and to compete and do things that don’t come natural to him, I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Nonis said. “The one thing with that is he needs to continue doing that, and he knows it.”
Kessel already has 185 goals and 379 points in 504 career games and he’s scored at least 30 goals in each of his last four full seasons. He led the Maple Leafs with 20 goals in 48 games last season, a pace that would have extended that streak to five.
It could easily be argued Kessel is just hitting his prime, and Nonis said that combination of Kessel’s young age and the upward trajectory of his career made the decision to commit to him for eight years with a limited no-trade clause much easier.
“Elite players are going to get it,” Nonis said. “Look around the League, if you’re going to retain an elite player you’re going to have to give them a fairly lengthy term. What you want to make sure is that you’re comfortable as you can be that the player is going to be able to perform at a high level for most if not all of it.
“Phil being 26 years old, I’m pretty comfortable that we hopefully have the eight best years of his career.”