It was a big day for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday as they took on the Montreal Canadiens in the first game of the 2013-2014 season, coming out with a 4-3 victory in front of a full house at the Bell Centre. However, earlier in the day the Leafs were making other news when they announced that superstar winger Phil Kessel had signed an 8 year extension with the buds.
Kessel and Leafs management agreed to an 8 year $64 million deal that will kick in next season. Speculation on an extension had been in the air almost since the end of last season, but serious talks about signing the extension only just kicked in to gear this past week. The speculation grew after Kessel had made it very clear to the Leafs management that he was not willing to negotiate and work on a deal during the season.
What this meant for the Leafs was either get the deal done before the season starts or wait until the end of the season and risk Kessel testing free agency. Luckily, Nonis spoke with Kessel this past week, after his slashing incident against Buffalo, where Kessel made it clear to Nonis that he would prefer to remain a Toronto Maple Leaf. From here it was pretty easy for Nonis to get a deal done, that will now see Kessel play, what could be the rest of his career, in Toronto.
Even on the eve before the signing, when speculation that the deal was in the works, many questioned the value of Phil Kessel with most critics believing that a price tag of $7-8 million was too much for the sniper. Most claims suggest that his defensive game was still lacking and that he was a very one-dimensional player. So, let’s take a closer look at Phil Kessel.
It is no secret that Kessel’s biggest strength and asset to the Toronto Maple Leafs is scoring goals. Over the past three seasons in the NHL, Kessel has amassed a very respectable 89 goals. These 89 goals are the third in the NHL during this three year span behind only Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, and Corey Perry (all former Rocket Richard Trophy Winners). So, obviously he is among the best goal scorers in the game.
Kessel finished the shortened season last year with 20 goals and finishing 8th in the league with 52 points in 48 games. Had last year been a full 82 game season, Kessel would have been on track to eclipse the best point total of his career.
One other strength that Kessel has that he showed Leafs fans this past spring was that when it comes playoff time, he steps up his game. In the seven game heartbreaking series against the Boston Bruins Kessel put up 6 points in 7 games including a goal in the infamous game 7. This was pretty impressive for a player who had a history of never being able to produce against his former team during the regular season.
However, this wasn’t anything new to Kessel as even while he was with the Bruins he was more than a point per game producer in the playoffs. While with the Bruins Kessel put up an impressive 15 points in 15 games between 2007-2009.
Finally, there is Kessel’s defensive game. Now it is very clear that defense isn’t Kessel’s greatest asset, but under the reigns of head coach Randy Carlyle there has been improvement to this part of his game. In fact Kessel's plus minus has improved in each of his last two seasons.
In the end it might be the man who gave him the hefty contract who summed it up best at Tuesday afternoon’s press conference. “… His contract is likely in the top 10 highest in the league, but over the past few years he has been in the top 10 in goals and points…”
Yes, Kessel’s contract is the highest in Maple Leafs history, but Kessel has proved that he is the offensive backbone to this hockey club and he has constantly put up high numbers since coming over from Boston. He may come with a high price tag, but you have to spend good to get good and the Maple Leafs understand this. Suffice to say if the Leafs failed to sign their franchise player come next season, Dave Nonis and company would have a very hard time finding someone to replace the offense left by Kessel.
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