Kessel stays put for now
Bruins’ trade was lost in translation
The Bruins had a deal in place Friday to ship right winger Phil Kessel, their high-scoring restricted free agent, to the Maple Leafs for veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle, just the kind of skilled, minutes-crunching blue liner who could make Boston a bona fide contender to be an Eastern Conference playoff champion, maybe even a Stanley Cup champion, next spring.
But like many well-prepared meals, garnish and presentation are so often the key, and the Kessel-for-Kaberle deal crumbled because Toronto didn’t have as many trimmings on the plate as the Bruins initially believed.
According to sources on both sides of the deal who had first-hand knowledge of the negotiations, the Bruins arrived at the draft late Friday afternoon believing they were swapping Kessel, 21, for Kaberle, 31. The Bruins initially asked for Toronto’s top pick in this past weekend’s draft, No. 7 overall, to be included in the swap. But when Toronto general manager Brian Burke turned down that package, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli countered with Kessel and Boston’s top pick next June for Kaberle and the No. 7.
A swap of players. A swap of first-round picks. Deal done. Or so the Bruins believed. So much so, said one source, that they planned to select hard-rock winger Zack Kassian with the No. 7 pick.
When the Bruins’ front-office brass arrived at the Bell Centre in Montreal around 4:30 p.m., some 2 1/2 hours before the draft, Chiarelli and Burke soon met among the forest of 30 team tables spread out over half the arena’s floor. It was at that point, one of the sources said yesterday, when Chiarelli first learned that Burke believed the only pick in the deal was the first-rounder the Bruins would hand over in 2010.
The No. 7 pick, Burke believed, remained his, and he stood ready to acquire Kessel and Boston’s top pick next June in what amounted to a two-for-one for Kaberle.
The response from a near-speechless Chiarelli: No deal.
Sources on both sides attributed it all either to a misunderstanding or a miscommunication. Before meeting on the floor, the GMs had not filed formal paperwork with the league or shook hands on the deal. Burke and Chiarelli, longtime friends and Harvard alums, parted amicably upon realizing there was no deal, with the Leafs proceeding that night to select Toronto homeboy Nazem Kadri, a center and Lebanese-Canadian, with the seventh pick.
The Sabres, with the No. 13 pick, grabbed Kassian, who quickly could become Buffalo’s counterpunch, literally, to Boston’s Milan Lucic. The 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound Kassian and the hulking Lucic, by all reports, are cut from the same bolt of canvas.
The crux of the breakdown in Friday’s trade talks was first reported by columnist Damien Cox in Sunday’s Toronto Star.
Early Friday, Bob McKenzie, the highly-regarded TSN commentator, first reported on the network’s website that Boston offered Kessel for Kaberle and the No. 7 pick. There was no mention then of Boston sweetening the offer with its top pick in 2010. McKenzie later backed off the story, noting there had been a misunderstanding between the sides. A report on boston.com Thursday night was the first to reveal the Bruins were interested in Kaberle.
The underlying story remains that the Bruins, if not intent on dealing Kessel, certainly continue to entertain serious offers. Chiarelli poked around for a deal at the trading deadline in 2008, and then again this past spring when he came close to a swap with St. Louis for Keith Tkachuk and David Perron. Despite a fan base that is enthralled with Kessel’s speed and his 66 career goals in three seasons, the front office is obviously more tempered in its enthusiasm for the former University of Minnesota speedster.
Kessel, after potting 36 goals this past season, is in line for a hefty pay boost. If he signs here, the Bruins would like it to be in line with the deal they recently inked with David Krejci at a cap hit of $3.75 million for each of the next three seasons. If Kessel were an unrestricted free agent, and not subject to compensation, he would be justified in asking for $5 million a year or more.
Wade Arnott, Kessel’s agent, respectfully declined the opportunity to comment yesterday.
As of tomorrow noon, the start of free agency, Kessel is free to entertain offers from the NHL’s other 29 clubs or look to play in Europe, the latter scenario not very likely. If he were to sign overseas, the Bruins would receive no compensation.
The upcoming season’s salary cap will be $56.8 million, only $100,000 more than last season and by far the smallest raise since the league initiated the cap at $39 million out of the 2004-05 lockout. The Bruins are some $6 million under the cap and in need of securing a handful of players, including free agents Kessel, Byron Bitz, and Matt Hunwick. If Chiarelli leaves Kessel unsigned and subject to the RFA market, he has the right to match any offer and would be barred from trading him for at least one year.
A potential compromise would be for Kessel to take a one-year contract with Boston and then elect to go to arbitration next summer. If he were to repeat his feat of 36 goals, or even score more, he then would be virtually guaranteed an award of $5 million a year or more. Only 11 other NHLers scored more last season, and nine of them have deals that average $6.5 million in place for next season.
The Bruins, as evidenced by the deals they’ve entertained for him, aren’t sure they want Kessel back. Even if they do, they may not have enough cash to pay him and ice a team Chiarelli believes has enough skill and depth. The move for Kaberle not only proved the organization’s ambivalence about Kessel, but also Chiarelli’s belief, contrary to what he has said since the end of the season, that he needs to add mobility and finesse to the Boston back line.
Toronto still has the player the Bruins want. For now, it remains a matter of fit, and Mssrs. Burke and Chiarelli speaking, or at least hearing, the same language.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.