Kessel and Bruins not the right fit
After a midseason practice at Ristuccia Arena last season, Phil Kessel was getting ready to leave the rink when he bumped into coach Claude Julien.
“Phil, weight room’s that way,’’ cracked Julien with a smile, pointing to the workout facility.
“Yeah,’’ Kessel responded with a laugh, then continued on his way to the parking lot.
And now Kessel’s gone for good, the recipient of a $27 million payday ($5.4 million annually for five years). On Friday, the Bruins traded the 21-year-old to Toronto for first- and second-round picks in 2010 and a first-rounder in 2011. The trade was the end game to a process triggered by an underlying stimulus: Kessel, primarily because of Julien’s firm approach, wanted out of Boston.
“He wasn’t any different than a lot of players you deal with at times,’’ Julien said. “You never have smooth relationships because there are challenges along the way. What you do as a coach is convince those guys and make them understand and believe that this is what you need to do to be the best team possible. This is what you need to do to be the best player possible as well. We all know that Phil has grown up as a superstar player. Those guys will also be a bit of a bigger challenge. But I can tell you honestly that last year there were no issues as far as him resisting. And there shouldn’t have been, because his season proved that he was very successful.’’
Several times in 2007-08, Kessel, the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft, hinted to management that he would not be opposed to being traded. Then in July, after the Bruins tried and failed to land the No. 7 pick and Tomas Kaberle from Toronto for Kessel at the draft, the right wing made his feelings firmer, saying he would not re-sign with Boston, regardless of the offer.
“Let me be perfectly clear,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “This trade is really about two things. One, it’s about a player who did not want to play in Boston. Two, it’s about the threat or the perceived threat of an offer sheet.’’
In the last few weeks, the Bruins had trade discussions with other teams. They talked to Nashville, with prospects Colin Wilson and Ryan Ellis being their top targets, but it was unlikely that the Predators could have given Kessel a salary comparable with the deal he earned with Toronto. Kessel would not agree to a sign-and-trade with the Bruins, meaning Toronto could still throw down an offer sheet if Boston dealt him elsewhere.
When asked if the trade were not completed and Toronto had signed Kessel to a five-year, $27 million offer sheet, Chiarelli said he didn’t know whether he would have matched. Given the subsequent moves required had they matched - Michael Ryder ($4 million) and Andrew Ference ($1.4 million) would have been two candidates to be traded or assigned to Providence - the Bruins probably would have declined to do so. Had the Bruins locked up Kessel to more than $5 million annually, they would have faced even more challenges after this season, when Marc Savard hits unrestricted free agency and Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler, and Tuukka Rask reach restricted status.
“We want players that want to be here,’’ Chiarelli said. “I know that this player is a good player. Obviously he is. He can skate. He can shoot the puck. But we want players that want to be here. We want to grow the team with these types of players. I know the history here, but this isn’t about frugality. There were some significant [contract] offers made. There was little or no attempt to negotiate from the other side, which I think is for a reason, which is the reason I explained earlier.’’
Kessel, who turns 22 Oct. 2, scored 36 goals last season despite battling mononucleosis and a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his left shoulder. He drew comparisons with Sidney Crosby in terms of being a franchise player, and was once considered as a candidate to be the top pick in the 2006 draft.
Toronto general manager Brian Burke toughened up his club during the summer by signing the blue-collar likes of Mike Komisarek and Colton Orr. But with no offense in sight - hence the tryout invitation extended to ex-Bruin Jason Allison, last seen in the NHL in 2005-06 - and armed with the deep pockets of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, Burke made a two-pronged approach of picks to Chiarelli and megabucks to Kessel that trumped every other offer in the league.
“There wasn’t a team, but for one, that was willing to make a firm offer and willing to pay the player the amount of money he was requesting,’’ Chiarelli said.
While Kessel instantly becomes Toronto’s most dangerous offensive threat, he will not have the supporting cast he had in Boston. In Toronto, Kessel might be paired with Matt Stajan (15-40 -55 in 76 games last season), or he might be switched to center because of Toronto’s up-the-middle weakness. Kessel will be playing for Ron Wilson, who’s been known to wield a heavy hand with his young players.
In Boston, Kessel skated on a line that saw the thump-first Lucic creating space and one of the NHL’s elite playmakers in Savard threading him tape-to-tape passes. Because of Boston’s depth, Kessel wasn’t counted on to be a go-to scorer in pressure situations. Only seven of Kessel’s 36 goals came against teams that qualified for the playoffs.
Ironically, one of the reasons why Kessel was successful last season was Julien, perhaps the most significant factor in his desire to leave.
“He had his best season under this coach. Enough said on that,’’ Chiarelli said. “We stress defense first. We stress competitiveness. Having said all that, what were we, first or second in the league in goals scored? And he had 36 goals? Got him a nice raise.’’
Julien wasn’t shy about using playing time, or the lack of it, to send messages to Kessel. He called out Kessel for playing soft in situations where he needed to be stronger on the puck and more aggressive about applying back pressure. By his reasoning, Julien was tough on Kessel because he knew the depth and breadth of his goal-scoring talent, and that more was expected of such players.
“Last year was a lot better,’’ Julien said. “My first year here was obviously trying to convince him that we were really trying to make him a better player. He needed to understand that. Obviously he did, because he scored 36 goals the next year. I even told him in a conversation that I didn’t get a bonus for making him a bad player. He had to understand that everything I did was to try and make him a better player. I think that message was understood. Last year, I think his season proved that. He seemed to understand the concept of our team. Besides the 36 goals, he was a plus player. I feel good personally knowing that I did my best to make him the best player he could. The rest of the stuff that happens after that has nothing to do with me.’’