Showing Phil The Money
MONTREAL--The Maple Leafs might have been able to call the shots this fall when it came to negotiating new contracts for Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson.
But not Phil Kessel.
Kessel, who turns 26 tomorrow, had all the leverage in this negotiation because he had the ability to walk out the door next July.
He basically handed the Leafs a deadline - an ultimatum, really - of when he would accept a new contract extension, and today it's expected the club will meet that deadline with a new eight-year, $64 million deal just before the puck drops to begin the 2013-14 season.
That's what being a consistent, 30-35 goal scorer in the NHL gets you these days. With Gary Bettman's administration having allowed scoring to drop again to Dead Puck Era levels, a player like Kessel who can still find the net in about four out of every 10 games is, essentially, irreplaceable.
He knew that, his agent knew that, and Dave Nonis knew that.
That Kessel will apparently get this deal when a year ago many within the Leaf organization and outside it were questioning as to whether he was an appealing target for such a contract demonstrates a remarkable turnaround in the way the winger is perceived. Don't forget, it wasn't that long ago that he was picked dead last in the all-star game draft, and the hockey world seemed to take enormous delight laughing at Kessel, Brian Burke and the Leafs, not necessarily in that order.
But Kessel turned it around by battling hard in a first round playoff loss to Boston last spring, finally overcoming the mental and/or physical block he had when competing against the team that traded him away.
Since then, the Bruins have dealt the key piece they picked up in the 2009 trade with Toronto, forward Tyler Seguin, and nowadays few would question that Kessel, warts and all, is the best player in that trade. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup after dealing him, of course, so they hold the trump card in any conversation about who won the deal.
Kessel now becomes the richest Leaf ever and one of the highest paid players in the game, and the question is now this; is he what he seems to be, or is there more?
Certainly, it became clear in recent months that he wanted to stay in Toronto, that he actually preferred being in such a hockey hotbed, perhaps because he'd proved to himself and everyone else that he could handle it.
His best buddy, Tyler Bozak, plays centre beside him. The team has built around him and grown from one of the weakest teams in the Eastern Conference to a competitive squad, and a tough one, and Kessel is the No. 1 offensive weapon.
Folks will have a hard time comparing him with outstanding Leafs of the recent past like Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin when it comes to understanding this contract.
He's like none of those players, and his battle readiness will continue to be questioned, as will his rep as a last-to-the-rink, first-off-the-ice player.
But the guy can score. He can score 30 in his sleep. He creates open ice for others with his fabulous speed. He gets along with his teammates, who understand he's an offensive weapon few teams have.
This contract will come with lots and lots of questions, mostly concerning whether he's the right player to invest in, and whether the Leafs can become an elite team with him as their centre piece.
He's answered some of those questions. More will be forthcoming.