Here we are in August, and the expected demolition of the Leafs’ roster appears to have stalled. Or was hitting pause part of the plan?
When Leafs’ President Brendan Shanahan discussed the deal that sent Toronto’s all-star winger to the Pittsburgh Penguins (in exchange for Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling and picks), he described the trade as “a message to our group.”
So what is that message, exactly?
If it was that no player is untouchable, then the message was redundant. The team clarified as much back in February, when MLSE approved plans to begin a rebuild. Any hope that the status quo would continue was surely dashed on “Bloody Sunday,” when the Leafs jettisoned their coaches and swathes of scouts. Any denial was surely dispelled when Mike Babcock declared “there’s pain coming” after being introduced as the team’s new head coach.
So what was the message sent to the Leafs’ core of Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak? I can’t read Shanahan’s mind, but I’d guess it’s along the lines of, “Don’t get comfortable in your jerseys.”
The Leafs are no longer their team. They’re placeholders serving a custodial role, keeping the franchise in order as the club develops prospects—the true heirs to the jerseys that the core is borrowing. The old core’s careers are now in salvage mode, so they’d better buy into Babcock’s program, because they’ll either build value for the Leafs and earn trades to better teams, of their tenure in Toronto (and perhaps their careers) will end ignominiously: exiled to the pressbox, dumped for paltry draft picks, or waived for a buyout and essentially paid to play elsewhere (if anyone will take them).
No More Scapegoats or Whipping Boys
In Kessel’s absence, the onus now falls on the remaining members of the core to shoulder the burden of the team’s struggles.
To say Phil Kessel was a lightning rod for controversy in Toronto is like saying an iceberg might have had something to do with the sinking or the Titanic. As the leading scorer and biggest star on a woefully misassembled team, Kessel was scrutinized mercilessly, as though the well thumb had to fix the sore hand on its own.
Some criticism was merited, but other comments (e.g. the sniper’s alleged hotdog consumption) was part of the publicity fiasco that characterized the Leafs during Kessel’s era, climaxing with last season’s hatefest. As Elliotte Friedman noted on Sportsnet 590 months ago, “Last year was an angry year. You know, the players hated the fans and the media. The media hated the players and the fans. The fans hated the players and the media.”
At the centre of that vortex of hate was Kessel.
The new era begins with the departure of the old whipping boy. The surviving members of the core no longer have Kessel to deflect criticism away from them.
I’m not saying the core threw Kessel under the bus, but the glare of contempt that reporters and fans cast on Phil shaded them from a lot of scrutiny. There’s no denying that Phil’s tetchy attitude toward the media, inability to realize the lofty expectations created by his skillset, reputation of being “uncoachable” or even a “coach killer,” and other controversies drew attention away from the players who underachieved around him—or overachieved because of him.
We’ll certainly find out who players like Phaneuf, Bozak, Lupul and James van Riemsdyk truly are when they skate without #81 next year.
The New Mantra
Randy Carlyle’s dressing-room mantra of “burn the boats” will change next season. For members of the 2015-16 Leafs who are 27 or older, the new rallying call should be “build your own lifeboat” because their careers are on the line, and they won’t be able to stay afloat by clinging to Kessel anymore.
Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once wrote that a general can get the most from soldiers by putting them on “dying ground” (conditions in which defeat and death were likely). He argued that soldiers adhere to orders closely and muster their greatest effort when they believe that every action influences their chances of survival.
By trading Kessel, Toronto has essential put the core’s careers on dying ground. Success—whether measured by winning the Stanley Cup, making the playoffs, or achieving a winning record—will elude the Leafs next year. Losing respectably will be a challenge for this team. Without Kessel in the lineup, they will struggle to score worse than they did during last season’s streak of shutouts, and they will bear the full scrutiny for their failures.
How they withstand this adversity will determine their longevity as Leafs and perhaps as NHL players.
The Real Value of the Kessel Trade
The Kessel trade has numerous detractors, few defenders, and even fewer commentators who would express unequivocal support for the deal. However, the real value of the trade is yet to be determined. We won’t be able to measure it solely on the careers of Kapanen, Harrington, Spaling, and whomever the Leafs select with the picks acquired from Pittsburgh.
The full value should be measured based on what the team gets for the rest of the core—on the ice as well as the trade market. Players in their 30s won’t play meaningful hockey for competitive teams in the spring unless they commit to competing in fall for a losing team. They must set examples for prospects and establish a work ethic that will (hopefully) prevent the Air Canada Centre from becoming as polluted with defeat as Rexall Place. By doing that, they might have a chance to bail out their sinking careers.