Sunday, September 20, 2009

Farewell, Phil

In my last post, I talked about how the Bruins' situation with Phil Kessel was nearing a conclusion. That conclusion came Friday night, when Kessel was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs for first- and second-round picks in 2010 and a first-rounder in 2011. While the return wasn't shocking, the new contract given to the restricted free agent was: five years, $27 million, and a $5.4 million annual cap hit for the 21-year-old American sniper set to play out the prime of his career in Canada's hockey hotbed.

On a visceral level, the trade itself wasn't surprising; trade talks involving Kessel had been rumored ever since Scott Walker broke our hearts in May. The return is solid and the contract he received is cartoonish, with a cap hit the Bruins would not have touched. I'm happy all sides involved are satisfied, as the B's have eliminated a huge distraction and now have five early 2010 picks to move around next spring. We live in a salary cap era, and Kessel is a casualty. The Bruins truly did the best they could under the circumstances.

But, more than anything, my negative feelings towards this trade were of sadness. I heard so many awesome things about Kessel when he was drafted, that he'd be the sniper the Bruins so lacked since Cam Neely's heyday. The excitement he brought to the ice as a young star was part of my re-attraction to this team. My first B's shirt in years had his name and number on it.

So seeing him go to a division rival was hard, because I couldn't stop thinking about what may have been. This could have worked. At least that's what I want to believe.

The B's reportedly offered Kessel something similar to the four-year, $16 million Jordan Staal signed with the Penguins last year. They probably did not want to offer him more than the $3.75 million average David Krejci signed for, but it was closer to what Florida gave David Booth ($4.25 million average), an older player with a similar skill set.

Kessel wasn't interested. He wanted to be paid like the star he isn't yet. Kessel and his agent, Wade Arnott, were not willing to budge. Peter Chiarelli stuck to his guns in terms of Kessel's value to the Bruins. For that reason, I'm proud of the Bruins for not giving in.

But they could have offered Kessel something closer to his asking price if they'd been able to make one move: trade away 31-year-old winger Marco Sturm and his $3.5 million salary to a team in need of some veteran scoring. I'm not sure about you, but I'd rather have a 21-year-old potentially-elite scorer and hope he'd mature into a positive room presence than a guy 10 years older coming off major knee surgery.

But when Sturm was signed to a multi-year extension in February of 2007, Chiarelli awarded him no-trade protection for reasons beyond comprehension. With rumors raging this summer, Sturm made it very clear he would not waive his NTC. It's not known if Sturm was ever asked to waive his NTC, but apparently it didn't matter.

After improving their defense with Derek Morris and taking care of Matt Hunwick and Byron Bitz, there was $1.7 million remaining under the cap, and they weren't moving anyone else for fear of losing significant production or an important chemistry element. Without Strum's NTC, Kessel could have stayed for something close to $5 million a year. It could have worked.

The other part of his has to do with Kessel himself. Much has been made in recent days about Kessel's problems with Claude Julien and some teammates. But at nearly 22, Kessel could have overcome those problems, and in relatively short order. I refuse to believe his problems with Julien were so bad that they couldn't possibly co-exist.

Did Kessel really want out of Boston that bad? Why would he want to leave a team on the rise, with excellent players, and a burgeoning fanbase the certainly didn't dislike him? I wonder if his desire to leave has been overblown. If it's not, then I'd rather the B's have skaters that want to be there than not. We may never know for sure. I just have a hard time believing things couldn't have changed. It could have worked.

But it didn't. And maybe it's just in my mind that it could have. What I do know is the NHL must address restricted free agency in the next CBA. In a league with such a tight cap, where signing big UFAs is just as vital as bringing along young draftees, the salary structure is completely screwed up when the Bruins cannot afford to keep Kessel because he can command such an exorbitant salary. Just wait until you see what the Blackhawks will have to deal with next summer.

Kessel's $5.4 million cap hit next year will be equal to or greater than the likes of forwards Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Johan Franzen, Marian Hossa, Simon Gagne, Martin Havlat, Shane Doan, Olli Jokinen, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin St. Louis, Jason Pominville, Brian Rolston, and the man that fed Kessel the puck all last year, Marc Savard (FYI: All these players will be UFAs at the end of their current deals). That's quite a list, and should tell you something about the state of affairs in the NHL right now. Kessel's one-dimensional play means he shouldn't be in the same class as most of these guys, but the economics of the league allow him to make more than most of them.

It's not right that Kessel can get away from the team that drafted him with less than three years of total NHL experience and get a raise from $850,000 to $5.4 million from a team desperately in need of scoring. The NHL must change this if teams reliant on young talent want to keep their best players.

But for now, this is the reality. Whether or not the Phil Kessel trade will work out for the Bruins won't be known for years. The 2009-2010 Bruins will still contend for the Stanley Cup, and his 36 goals will be replace by the presence of Sturm and Mark Recchi and the continued growth and development of Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler.

That question of what might have been will long linger with the name Kessel in Bruins' lore. In another time, this could have worked. Yet, it didn't. So we move on.

1 comment:

  1. I was really disappointed in him when I heard about this. It's an exorbitant price for someone so young and I think he was underestimating the experience he was getting with the Bruins. He left the Gophers (which I am not bitter about), who have a long and proud history of contribution to American hockey, and played with the Bruins, who have a similar history with the NHL. I think he was too impatient to be more than just a "Young Star" and he found a desperate franchise who was willing to pay him like a rockstar.

    And maybe he's just proving me right about people from Wisconsin.