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At the conclusion of the NHL Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas, the 2008-09 season was officially over. After the Bruins took home the Jack Adams, Vezina, Norris, and Jennings Trophies, it’s now back to work for General Manager Peter Chiarelli.
With the signing of the David Krejci to a three-year deal worth a total of over $11 million already taken care of, the Bruins next priority has undoubtedly become fellow restricted free agent Phil Kessel. Despite the strong showing by Kessel in 2008-09, is the 22-year-old truly worthy of his asking price of $5 million a season?
Potential. That’s all Bruins fans ever heard about Phil Kessel. He has the potential to score 40 goals, he has the potential to take over the pace of play and score. Fact was, in his first two years in the Hub of Hockey, we never saw that potential show up for 60 minutes. In fact, Bruins fans never saw anything beyond bits and pieces of Kessel’s talent in that stretch. His rookie season proved to be trying for the former University of Minnesota star as he was sidelined for 12 games due to requiring treatment for testicular cancer. Kessel earned a ‘pass’ due to his age and injury, and Bruins fans turned to next season as Kessel’s year.
The 2007-08 season was much of the same for Kessel, whose defensive game and inconsistent play frustrated fans, along with Bruins coach Claude Julien. By February, rumors over the internet, radio and television ran rampant that Phil Kessel was on the verge of being traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in a package to obtain Marian Hossa. At the end of the day, Kessel wasn’t dealt by the Bruins and they decided to hold on to the winger in hopes of him turning his play around. The struggles of Kessel continued and led to a playoff benching. As Phil The Thrill watched Game’s 3 and 4 against Montreal in Boston from the 9th level of the TD Banknorth Garden, a fire grew in No. 81’s heart and when he was put back in the line-up for Game 5, he wanted to show everyone what he really had in him.
Although the Bruins were eliminated in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens, Phil Kessel’s performance in Games 5, 6 and 7 spoke for itself. His three goals, including two key goals in what’s considered the greatest hockey game at the new Garden during Game 6 showed a different side of Phil: a more hungry side. The big question now was whether or not he’d carry this momentum into the 2008-09 campaign.
Kessel started off the new season with a bang, scoring six goals in the Bruins first six games of the season. Playing along with Marc Savard and Milan Lucic proved to be just what Kessel needed as he exploded for 36 goals in the Bruins’ overwhelmingly strong regular season, including five multi-goal games capped off with a hat trick against the New York Islanders. Kessel continued his strong play into the Bruins quest for their first Stanley Cup in 37 years. His six goals and 11 points in the playoffs put him at second on the team.
In the days following the Bruins’ exit out of the playoffs, it was revealed that Kessel had been playing through the final month of the regular season and through the entire playoffs with a torn rotator cuff and a torn hip labrum. The perseverance of Kessel and his unwillingness to miss any time due to the injury gave even Kessel’s harshest critics a new found respect for his play. With his stock sure to have gone up due in large part to his playoff performance, the Bruins seemed eager to get a deal done with Kessel as they did with Krejci.
However, the rumored asking price of $5 million a season to lock up the 22-year-old is proving that getting a deal done is harder than originally anticipated. Looking at the numbers Kessel posted this year, it’s reasonable that he would want a bump upwards from his current $2.2 million salary. Also, Kessel’s 36 goals put him among the league leaders and looking at the names surrounding him the average salary becomes $4.9 million a season. Unfortunately, that is a number the Bruins simply cannot match.
As of right now, the Bruins have a solid crop of right wingers, notably Michael Ryder, Chuck Kobasew, Blake Wheeler, and Byron Bitz. There’s no questioning the fact that these players are not of the same skill level of Phil Kessel, no matter how much we want to believe it. With this year’s draft looking to be the best one since 1999, it may be the perfect time to move Kessel to land a top 10 pick in this year’s draft.
I’m ready for the uproar. It’ll be another case of the Bruins trading away a stud player because he wants big money, right? Wrong. There are several reasons as to why Kessel’s simply not worthy of $5 million a season at this point. For one, look who he played with this year. Centering his line, he had Marc Savard, arguably the NHL’s best playmaking center.
Now let’s say Savard leaves Boston when his contract expires after this upcoming season. In previous seasons, Kessel’s highest amount of goals scored was just 19. Now I’m not suggesting that Savard’s made Kessel the player he is, but if Savard is to leave for greener pastures after this season and Kessel’s production slips, you’re stuck in a Glen Murray-like situation where you’re paying big money for a guy who could only produce when he had a big time No. 1 center playing with him.
Another reason why the Bruins are to be wary to commit be money to Kessel is his inconsistency. As previously mentioned, Kessel had five multi-goal games this season, but he also had two spurts where he went goal-less for five games and had a seemingly never ending 15-game stretch without a goal. Bruins fans understand that he’s still young and will go through his struggles, but struggles such as the ones mentioned will not get you a pass for “being young” when you’re the highest paid forward on the roster.
Besides Kessel, the Bruins have to lock-up restricted free agents Matt Hunwick and Byron Bitz. With Bitz and Hunwick due for slight raises, a number of cap issues begin to face the B’s. With 2010’s list of restricted free agents including Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler, Tuukka Rask, Mark Stuart, and Vlad Sobotka, there’s just no conceivable way that the Bruins can re-sign Kessel for $5 million.
When it boils down to it, Kessel’s motivation is questioned, and for good reason. A fact often unknown to most casual hockey fans is that Kessel was once the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, but attitude and motivation issues dropped his stock down and into the Bruins hands. How can the Bruins brass be sold that the Phil Kessel we saw and loved in 2008-09 was real? He was in a contract year, and was playing for the big pay day (which he wants now).
In a perfect world, Phil Kessel understands the rough economic climate along with the Boston Bruins salary cap woes and takes a $3.5-3.75 million deal per season for the next three years to remain in Boston. However, Kessel understands his worth in the market and wants his payday now, not in three years. In my honest opinion, this puts the Bruins in the spot to shop the 22-year-old if he’s not willing to budge on the dollar amount. With the NHL Draft starting Friday, the issue of the future of Phil Kessel with the Boston Bruins will be addressed head on.