With the Phil Kessel era beginning in Toronto, it’s only natural to look back at the trade that brought him to Ontario. For those of you that don’t remember, Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs traded their 1st and 2nd round draft picks in 2010, as well as their 1st round pick in 2011 for the rights to the restricted free agent. Obviously, all of this is speculation as he’s only played a single game in a Maple Leafs sweater—likewise it will be a few years before we know what those draft picks produce. But from a value perspective, it’s never too early to examine the merits of the trade. In fact, we have differing opinions here at VFMS whether this was a good trade or not. Here’s a quick point/counterpoint as to whether the Leafs gave up too much or they made a savvy move.
Sam Aronoff: Trading a guaranteed first overall pick in any year is not a good idea. But Brian Burke, the Leafs’ GM, did not do that. He traded two first round picks. For as bad as the Leafs have played they are not a team devoid of talent in net, on defense, and with Kessel, in the forward corps. Grabovski, Blake, and Kessel are all talented speedy players who should produce for the Leafs. There’s no reason to expect the Leafs’ pick to translate to the first overall. It’s a chance but every GM takes chances and the chance the pick would be first overall was thought to be slim. With that in mind, I’m putting aside the idea this pick should have been considered being first overall.
In architecture there’s a movement called deconstructionism. The idea is to leave some of, or most of, the building in a state where it looks incomplete. The thinking is, things always look beautiful when there’s still some potential for improvement. Draft picks are the epitome of potential. They’ve never played a game in the NHL so only their dominant seasons in juniors or college serve as a basis for judgment.
Determining how an eighteen or nineteen year-old young man will deal with the jump to the NHL is guesswork. Even determining how skills translate to the NHL is difficult work. Aki Berg, Patrik Stefan, Alexander Daigle, Alexei Yashin, and Jamie Storr are just the beginning of a list of first-round picks that never fulfilled their potential. On the flip-side, watching Anze Kopitar’s career so far one has to wonder why he slipped to eleventh overall. When you can trade all this guesswork and potential for talent pressure-tested on the NHL level you owe it to your franchise to do it. Too often picks don’t develop in your teams system or at all.
The entire idea of the draft for a GM is to allow the acquisition of good, young players who can help your team. Phil Kessel is better than any single draft pick the Leafs could have made in 2010 or 2011. With the exclusion of the first overall pick, the ceiling for early first-round picks in the current NHL game is a 40-goal scorer or a top-2 defenseman. Kessel is a 40-goal scorer in the making and scored 36 goals last year. He did play with a great playmaker in Mark Savard but he still had to finish. He’s played in the playoffs as a key part of a very good team. He’s a guaranteed product with potential for growth being he just turned 22. That’s the other important part of this all, Kessel himself is just barely older than draft picks. He has 13 years, at least, left in the tank barring injury.
For me this comes down to odds. Odds are one out of every two first rounders become something of meaning. The odds are even longer of finding a 40-goal scorer in the second round, well unless you’re the Red Wings. Sure, the Leafs could have filled the Swiss-cheese minor league system with those picks. But likelihood is none of those picks would have provided the scoring Kessel does. Certainly a prospect would not be likely to sell jerseys in Toronto or garner the media attention. And while helping in those areas don’t help win hockey games, they do help a team.
Matt Reitz: I get that the Leafs wanted Kessel in the worst way. It became apparent at the draft that Brian Burke had Phil Kessel pegged to be his offseason acquisition upfront—especially when he went out and augmented his blueline with Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. On a team that was noticeably absent of any elite talents at forward, Kessel would nicely fill the void.
First and foremost, no one should misconstrue what I’m saying here. Phil Kessel is a very good player and worthy of most of the accolades he receives. I can see how people would even say he’s worth that 5 year, $27 million contract. But to say that he’s worth TWO 1st rounders AND a 2nd rounder? No. For a team that is supposed to be in the middle of a rebuild? Hell no.
Check out the situation the Bruins were in with Kessel. There was no way they could pay him fair market value under the cap. And there was certainly no way they’d be able to pay the kind of premium that the Maple Leafs were willing to offer. To be able to get 2 draft picks that SHOULD make the NHL and another that has a decent shot, that’s exactly what a team up against the cap would be happy with. When you’re 1-7-5 and couldn’t win a single home game in the entire month of October, you need more than just one player.
But that’s WORST case scenario for the Bruins. At this point, the Maple Leafs start is making that trade look better by the day. You can make the argument that the 15th overall pick, a 2nd rounder and another next year isn’t a great deal. But a Top 5 pick? Or even Taylor Hall? I understand that Leafs fans will say that they’ll turn it around when Kessel starts playing and filling the net. But unless he plays on the PK or can help Vesa Toskula’s glove hand—they’re going to be closer to the Florida Panthers than the Pittsburgh Penguins. This has to be music to the Boston Bruins’ ears.
Aside from Maple Leaf fans, a lot of people assumed that Toronto was going to have a hard time making the playoffs. Judging by their start, it’s going to be even tougher than we thought. So we’re not talking about a late round pick—we’re talking about a possible Top 5 pick. With the 2nd round pick involved, that’s TWO picks in the top 35. Plus another 1st round pick after that. Isn’t that exactly what a rebuilding team would need?
Everyone knows that the draft is a crap shoot. We’re talking about projecting 17 year olds to predict what kind of player they’re going to be when they grow into their body and have fame and fortune introduced into their lives. Some guys handle the transition—some do not. But for every Pat Falloon, Patrik Stefan and Alexandre Daigle, there are more guys like Patrick Kane, Erik Johnson and John Tavares. As scouting (and scouting services) become more and more advanced, the top of the draft has become much more reliable.
Since 1990, about 63% of 1st round draft picks have a successful career in the NHL (500+ games). I’m sure that percentage is a little bit higher when we’re talking about the position the Leafs would be selecting this season. The 2nd round pick has about a 25% chance of having a successful career in the NHL. It’s the 3rd round and beyond where players really have a tough time making it to the NHL and sticking around for a while. But those aren’t the picks that Toronto traded to the Bruins. No, they traded the picks that actually matter. And they traded 3 of them. For a team that is in the middle of a rebuild and could use organizational depth at every position, the draft would be a valuable tool to help restock the cupboard. Maybe they can start in 2012.
Sam correctly mentioned that Kessel is a known quantity while the draft picks are not. He went on to talk about how teams are doing little more than guessing with their scouting and draft picks. He went on to use Drew Doughty as an example: “they knew he was good—they just didn’t know that he would be THIS good.” But that’s just the point. The Maple Leafs very likely traded a piece similar to Drew Doughty for Phil Kessel. AND they threw in another 1st rounder. And a 2nd rounder.
Here’s the deal. Are the Maple Leafs one player away from the Stanley Cup? Absolutely not. Are they one player away from the playoffs? Judging by yet another loss last night—to the lowly Lightning at home WITH Kessel—that looks like a NO as well. I understand overpaying for a player like Kessel when you’re close and one piece away from the Cup—but that’s certainly not the Leafs this year. And not next year either.