Monday, November 16, 2009

Ask me about the secret to comedy

Phil Kessel has looked impressive so far, but with the season nearing the quarter mark and the Leafs on pace for their worst point total since the mid-1980s one has to ask - was this the right time for Burke to pull the trigger?

Phil Kessel is undoubtedly an offensive threat with a wrist shot reminiscent of Wendel Clark's. Unlike Wendel, he's also impressed at the other end of the ice, demonstrating his speed with some aggressive and timely back-checking. He's head and shoulders better than any other Leaf forward and it's been a long time since the Leafs had a young talent like this.

That said, I still have a real problem with the timing of the Kessel deal.

This is the type of deal that’s traditionally pulled off by teams with deep farm systems who are close to winning it all.

The Leafs aren’t close to winning most games, never mind competing for the Cup. Their farm team is about as deep as a oil slicked puddle in an empty car park.

The price paid for Kessel was fair but, given the paucity of talent on this club and the complete lack of depth in their system, I'd argue that the Leafs were not in the position to pay that price.

Trading for Kessel when Matt Stajan is your first line centre is the equivalent of a starving homeless guy getting a sub-prime loan and buying a Ferrari.

There are many who claim the Leafs could afford to sacrifice two first round, a second and a third round pick to land Kessel because the team signed NCAA free agents Hanson and Bozak and plucked young goalie Jonas Gustavsson out of the Swedish Elite League.

I totally disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, the NCAA free agents and Gustavsson are great signings, but the Leafs need to do that each and every year for the next two or three seasons, PLUS draft well, just to replenish their prospect pool.

The Leafs have managed to keep their first round pick just three times this decade. Tlusty, Schenn and Kadri are all the Leafs have to show for first rounders since 2000. (Boyes went for Nolan; Cola and Steen for Stempniak; 2003 and '04 dealt for 15 regular and 13 playoff games of Brian Leetch; Rask for Raycroft; the '07 first rounder went for Toskala).

The Leafs won't get another first round pick into their system until 2012.

Given that it usually takes two to three years for a first round pick to make the NHL (never mind make a contribution at the NHL level), once Nazem Kadri makes the jump, it will likely be 2015 by the time the Leafs have their next first round pick in the line-up. Kessel's contract expires in 2014.

For those who argue that players of Kessel's calibre don't hit the open market and teams have to grab them when they do, there's a lot of truth to that; however, every trade deadline produces vets that can push a team over the hump. The Leafs grabbed Leetch, Pittsburgh grabbed Hossa, the Sharks grabbed Campbell, the Stars got Richards, and so on...

Admittedly, most of these players were rentals not multi-year contract holders like Kessel, but the larger point remains: I'd rather build a competitive team first and then look for the much-needed extra part on the trade market. If the Leafs drafted and developed properly, they'd also have a much richer asset base to trade from.

I think the prudent, and most probabalistic path to success in the NHL is to draft and develop well. Get as many kids into the system as possible.

Here’s why:

  1. Risk pool – the more prospects the less need for them to all pan out. These are, after all, 18, 19 and 20 year old kids. It’s not an exact science so load up and spread the risk (after Gunnarsson, the Leafs cupboard on D is pretty much empty and that ain’t good).
  2. The CBA constrains salaries on players in their first three years, which leads to…
  3. Greater cap flexibility as young players outperform their contracts; and
  4. Players with less than 3 seasons experience are waiver exempt, creating even more roster flexibility; which means...
  5. Teams have the much needed, and rarely found, depth in their system. You develop these kids right and they’ll be able to step right in, play the system and make a meaningful contribution.
In hockey, like comedy, the secret is timing. And I'm not laughing.


  1. Is that a reference to A Good Year? (my favorite movie right now)

  2. I haven't seen A Good Year, but it's likely the same old joke (Go up to someone and say, "Ask me about the secret to comedy." As soon as they start to ask the question, yell "timing!")

  3. The Leafs have managed to keep their first round pick just three times this decade. Tlusty, Schenn and Kadri are all the Leafs have to show for first rounders since 2000. (Boyes went for Nolan; Cola and Steen for Stempniak; 2003 and '04 dealt for 15 regular and 13 playoff games of Brian Leetch; Rask for Raycroft; the '07 first rounder went for Toskala).

    The Leafs won't get another first round pick into their system until 2012.

    Reading that hurt. It physically hurt.

  4. Well thought out and I totally agree. Great post.

  5. I also agree but a former NHL executive keeps reminding me that even a first pick overall is not a sure thing while Kessel has some track record in the NHL. That said, if both first rounders the Leafs gave up are busts then Boston is either unlucky or Peter Chiarelli needs to find a new vocation.

  6. Anonymous1:50 pm

    I agree with this article and Pseudonym. The Leafs need to finish 12th or higher in the East so that Boston doesn't get a lottery pick. There have been many draft years where even a first-round pick is not a sure thing. However, drafts are becoming deeper and deeper. If you turn your attention to lottery picks, a team is almost guaranteed to get some sort of NHL production out of the pick. Was it time to pull the trigger? Consider Burke is going to get about 18 million more cap space at the end of this season and losing a few useless contracts. Raycroft will be off the books, no more Van Ryn, Exelby, Stempniak, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Toskala, Mayers, or Primeau.
    Toskala may be gone before season's end if it means the Leafs have to pick up a bad contract for another year. The one thing Toskala has going for him is that his salary cap hit ends in April.

    Consider all of this and I can see why Burke made the move. As the author of this blog said, it usually takes 3 years for picks to see NHL action on a regular basis. Consider that the picks will not see the NHL until 2013 and 14 respectively, which is when Kessel's contract is up. What I can see Burke doing is going after those picks or having money available to go after a couple other rising stars in the NHL at that time. Kessel will get an extention, Savard will be brought in during the off-season.

    What I will say to the author and all commenters is this: What if the plan is to go out and get Tavaras after the 2011/2 season? What if Burke's goal is to have Kadri matched up with Tavaras again? It is a thought you must consider.

  7. Anonymous2:16 pm

    I agree with what posted except on one point. I think you're being too conservative on how long it takes for first rounders to make an impact. I agree that it takes 2-3 years for the picks taken in the later rounds of the draft, but check out the top picks and it's a different story. In the 2008 draft, 8 of the top 10 picks made their debut during the 2008-09 season, with Stamkos, Doughty, Bogosian, Schenn, and Boedker each having a season where they could contribute to a playoff team. This season, most of them are looking even better.

    From this past draft, you have Tavares at a point a game, Hedman playing solid, Duchene playing regularly, and Kane on pace for 50 points. That's the top 4 picks already having a significant impact on their team (no others in the top 10 are though).

    For high-level picks in today's NHL, it looks like you can get an impact very early - and this year's draft is supposed to be the best since 2003.

    We paid the right price, we just did it at the wrong time.

  8. Anonymous2:26 pm

    Sorry, there was a typo in that. I meant that I agree it can take 2-3 years for the later picks in the first round (and beyond), not just for the picks in the later rounds. It's generally just within the top 5 to top 10 picks that can step in and play right after their first year.

  9. Anonymous5:50 pm

    "What if the plan is to go out and get Tavaras after the 2011/2 season?"


    Good one.

  10. Great blog. I think you know how I feel about the Kessel deal...GREAT player, probably market value, wrong time. Why is it the Leafs NEVER have players like Kesssel in their system? Answer. They never seem to have a number 1 pick. The last time they had a number one pick who contributed significantly was Wendel in 83. In the new cap era you can't do this with any hope of success. Even before the draft it was very difficult to build a team without developing your own talent. For some reason Leaf management can't grasp this. Perhaps it's fan or media pressure that forces them to always seek the quick fix. I thought when Burke got here he would be immune or at least resistant to this pressure. Kessel is a great player and very fun to watch but with no supporting cast he may end up being a one man show ( I hope I'm Wrong) I know there's always free agency, but with the cap you can only go to that well so often. U.S Collegiate picks are nice and help build the farm, but the stars come from the draft.

    TC (Toronto Sports Commentary)

  11. Also,
    the way teams are locking up young players before they become UFA's, means a lot of the players we are salivating over won't even be available.