Plenty of Phil Kessel trade talk in Toronto today


Following yesterday’s deal of Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville — which some saw as the first in potentially long series of moves — Toronto turned its collective focus today to an even bigger piece of trade bait:

Phil Kessel.

First, GM Dave Nonis appeared on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central to address the Kessel rumors, just days after Kessel dropped his “if it’s not here, it’s not here” answer to questions about his future in Toronto.

“Yes, we signed Phil long-term; we think he’s a good player. I think he’s still top-20 in goals this year despite the fact he’s had a difficult time lately, but he doesn’t have a [full] no-trade,” Nonis explained. “We do have teams we can trade him to. You need to have some flexibility to change your team, and we have that.”

Moving Kessel, who’s under contract through 2022 at $8 million per, would be a tall task for Nonis, which is why the Leafs GM tempered trade enthusiasm with the reality that, more often than not, players of Kessel’s ilk tend to get moved in the summer.

“Players that are at that end of the pay scale usually get moved in the off-season, if at all,” he explained. “Very few get moved in the season, but we have had discussions with other teams.”

But with the cat out of the bag (and roaming around the house at will, to continue the analogy) it’s not surprising that rumored suitors are beginning to surface. One of those, apparently, is the Florida Panthers — all of which started with a tweet from Sun-Sentinel beat writer Harvey Fialkov.

On the surface, the deal would make some sense. The Panthers struggle to score goals — currently sitting 25th in the league at 2.36 per game — and Kessel, one of the game’s premier snipers, would provide an immediate boost in that department (and, lest we forget, the Panthers sit just three points back of Boston for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference heading into tonight’s play.)

Fialkov also said he spoke with Kessel at the All-Star Game about playing in Florida.

“I asked Phil point blank would he like to play for the Panthers, and his face lit up,” Fialkov explained. “He has a summer home in South Florida.”

While the actuality of Kessel going to Florida prior to the deadline seems far-fetched — would the Leafs really settle for anything less than one of, or some of, the Panthers’ promising youngsters? — today’s banter foreshadowed how crazy will likely get as Mar. 2 draws closer. The Kessel sweepstakes are officially on.

Habs’ Subban stands up for Phil Kessel

Carey Price, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban

The Canadiens and Maple Leafs are fierce rivals, but Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban put that aside to support Toronto forward Phil Kessel following the Habs’ 2-1 shootout victory over them tonight.

“I don’t think Phil (Kessel) gets enough credit for his personality,” Subban told Montreal Gazette writer Dave Stubbs. “He’s a personable guy if he knows you. If you put a microphone in (Kessel’s) face and ask him stupid questions, he’s not going to show that (personable) side of himself.

“I don’t think (Kessel) gets enough credit for showing his personality. He’s an outgoing guy and he’s really funny.”

Kessel has certainly taken quite a bit of heat this season. Some of that comes with the fact that he’s the best and highest paid player on a team that’s in a free fall, but that’s not the extent of it. For example, after Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was fired, another former Toronto bench boss, Ron Wilson, called Kessel unreliable, which led to a heated exchange between Kessel and Toronto Star reporter Dave Feschuk over his coachability.

At this point Kessel might feel resigned to the possibility that the Maple Leafs will trade him, which wouldn’t be an unreasonable thing for Toronto to do for reasons that aren’t at all related to his personality.

The hockey world’s been awfully hard on Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel

The 2015 All-Star Game’s fantasy draft almost felt like a greatest hits compilation for Phil Kessel mockery.

Jonathan Toews made a lighthearted reference to how “coach-able” Kessel may or may not be. Merely picking him first was a reference to Kessel being the original final selection of an All-Star Game fantasy draft. The ribbing only continued when he was once again “traded” for Tyler Seguin.

As amusing as some of this stuff is, perhaps it should also prompt a moratorium on Kessel mockery. Let’s face it, the 27-year-old’s been receiving a disproportionate amount of grief for basically his entire NHL career.

Exaggerated character concerns

In fact, the Kessel-bashing started even before he played his first game.

At some point, he was considered possibly the first pick of the 2006 NHL Draft, yet he left a bad impression. Brian Burke referred to a pre-draft interview as “pathetic” and Kessel slid modestly to the Boston Bruins with the fifth choice.

Despite generating a 36-goal season in his last campaign with Boston, it was a bumpy ride with the Bruins, especially when he was a healthy scratch during the 2008 playoffs. (It’s oddly fitting that a player whose “style doesn’t suit the postseason” currently has 21 points in 22 career postseason games …)

What Kessel can and cannot control

Anyway, his eventual departure from Boston – partially a money decision, partially because maybe he didn’t mesh well with head coach Claude Julien, among other potential factors – really escalated the mockery.

Even though he’s been the 15th most productive point producer in the NHL since joining the Maple Leafs, Kessel’s been a punching bag for most of that time, whether it’s people lambasting him for the (first) Seguin trade or scapegoating him for Toronto’s many problems.

Here’s the real question, though: how much of any of this is Kessel’s fault?

Whatever flaws he might exhibit, he’s generated 30+ goals in every full season (ignoring the 48-game campaign, when he was on his typically impressive pace) since his final year with the Bruins. He’s certainly had his moments with the media, but has he done so to such a degree to justify so much flack?

Much, if not all, of the grief he received this weekend was in good fun. Still, it seems odd how many people forget that Kessel deserves the respect of … you know, a perennial All-Star.