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Plenty of Blame To Go Around In Kessel Saga

Phil Kessel

The Phil Kessel era in Boston has ended. Or “error,” as many close to the Bruins organization would have you believe.

The mercurial winger is gone, sent packing in a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and truth be told, there’s a whole lot of blame to go around in this one, on both sides of the fence.

On one side lies Kessel, the talented but often frustrating player who led the Bruins in goals in 2008-2009 but never really found his place on the team. On the other lies the Bruins organization, who haven’t done themselves any favors with their approach to the Kessel situation, both before and after the trade. First, however, let us take a closer look at the player, and the circumstances which ultimately led to his departure.

Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel was drafted 5th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. At the time he was seen as an incredibly talented, sky is-the-limit type of prospect, and for good reason. Blessed with incredible skating ability and an absolute howitzer of a shot, few players in the NHL, let alone his draft class, could claim the skill set that Kessel possessed in droves during his draft year.

Still, he “fell” to the Bruins at #5 thanks to perceived attitude issues, issues which were brought to light in an ESPN the Magazine article and subsequent chapter in the book Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts, both written by hockey journalist Gare Joyce, which portrayed Kessel in a less than stellar light. Still, at #5 he was seen as an excellent pick by the Bruins, as the top 5 picks in that draft were seen as head and shoulders above the rest.

Kessel signed with the Bruins shortly thereafter, and departed the University of Minnesota after just one year to join the big club in 2006-2007. Few Bruins fans like to reminisce on that season, as the B’s had one of their worst seasons in history under the misguided leadership of Dave Lewis. On a personal level, Kessel’s rookie season was interrupted by a scare no one wants to experience, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2006. Kessel missed just 11 games due to the disease, but his season, much like the team itself, was one to forget.

Kessel’s sophomore season saw him improve his game, an improvement that coincided with the Bruins resurgence in 2007-2008 as the winger notched 19 goals and the Bruins took the #1 seed Montreal Canadiens to 7 games before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

In 2008-2009, Kessel continued his ascent to NHL stardom, leading the Eastern Conference’s best team in goals scored, notching 36 tallies in just 70 games. Still, even with his impressive goal-scoring prowess and improved overall play, there were many who felt Kessel lacked in a number of areas, notably the grit and toughness departments, areas Bruins fans and management alike have always lauded. It’s quite possible these deficiencies were the defining factor in Kessel’s departure (Kessel, however, played throughout the 2009 playoffs with a torn labrum, information which was revealed only after Boston’s exit at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2nd round).

Obviously, a quick examination of Phil Kessel the player yields practically no explanation for this trade. A 21-year-old, high-first round pick who leads his #1 seeded playoff team in goals scored isn’t normally the type of player you look to trade, especially when you’re in “win now” mode, as the Bruins most certainly are. Thus, a more in-depth look at Kessel, both the player and the person, is necessary.

Kessel, the “Person”

I touched on the deficiencies many see in Kessel’s game a couple paragraphs ago, but it needs to be reiterated; the Bruins have a clear mold they want their players to adhere to, and essentially, Kessel was the antithesis of that mold. Management, namely Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely, and head coach Claude Julien have issued a team-wide memorandum over the past two seasons, and it’s practically become a team slogan: “become a tougher team to play against, night in and night out.” Obviously this wasn’t a difficult concept for most of the players to buy in to. Players like captain and Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and fan favorite Milan Lucic practically epitomize that ideal, and the lunch pail, blue collar fans who populate the upper reaches of the TD Garden can relate to these types of players much more so than with, say, a player of Kessel’s ilk, who shies away from contact and would rather dipsy-doo around a defender than barrel over him (and for good reason, as a strong gust of wind could probably knock Kessel over). Still, championship caliber teams are normally a mixture of skill sets (a team with 20 Milan Lucics would be fun as hell to watch, but probably wouldn’t win too many Stanley Cups), and players like Kessel are a commodity who should be valued and utilized. Obviously, there’s more to the story than Kessel’s unwillingness to buy into the system.

Herein lies the rub; Kessel the person was simply not suited for this organization. The “attitude issues” have been widely reported for years now, and I firmly believe they’re all incredibly overblown. Instead, I’m in the camp that believes Kessel is simply an incredibly shy, introverted person. Watch 10 seconds of a Kessel interview and you’ll feel like you’re watching an episode of The Office. To say Kessel is an awkward individual would be like saying Kanye West has a small attitude problem. He simply did not fit in on this team, and it’s clear that a number of issues surrounding the business side of the game eventually affected Kessel so personally that he simply felt he couldn’t play here anymore.

At the draft, a widely reported instance occurred in which the Bruins attempted to trade up to the #4 spot in the draft to select Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom, who wound up going at #4 to the Washington Capitals (and now has the pleasure of feeding passes to the inimitable Alexander Ovechkin). A video of this ordeal actually found its way onto YouTube, and there’s a good chance this news got back to Kessel at some point over the last three years.

Then there was the playoff benching in 2008, when Julien sat the young winger in the press box after Game 1 against the Canadiens (a game in which Kessel scored Boston’s only goal). At the time Julien was mum on the issue, but it was widely reported that Kessel was benched because Julien was unhappy with Kessel’s three-zone play. Kessel returned in Game 5 of that series, and scored a classic, highlight reel goal in the Bruins epic Game 6 victory, and most assumed the ordeal was over and done with. It’s safe to assume however that Kessel never really got over Julien benching him in that series, and this only added to the already simmering animosity between player and team.

I think however the tipping point came during this past offseason, when Kessel entered restricted free agency on June 1. The following day, news broke that the Bruins had signed second-year center and Kessel’s sometime-linemate David Krejci to a three-year deal worth $3.75 million per year. Kessel and Krejci had been seen as Boston’s two most important off season question marks (along with Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas),  as both would be susceptible to offer sheets from eager GMs. It took all of one day for Bruins management to ink the older yet less experienced Krejci to a three-year deal. Considering Kessel’s perceived issues with personal slights (which I’ve already highlighted), there’s a decent chance this irked him considerably.

Following up the Krejci signing, Boston then re-upped RW Byron Bitz, RW Mark Recchi, and D Matt Hunwick to contracts worth $3 million total. Boston’s big signing however came on July 24, when the Bruins inked free agent defenseman Derek Morris to a one-year deal worth $3.3 million. All told, the Bruins tied up $10 million in cap space for the 2010 season, all before addressing Kessel’s contract. To the sensitive and introverted winger, this had to be the last straw, and as we’ve come to learn, the other shoe dropped shortly thereafter, with Kessel asking the Bruins for a trade and essentially cutting off all contact with Boston.

Bruins Player Management

Lost in all of this however is the Bruins’ impersonal approach to player management, an approach which essentially led to the loss of the team’s best goal scorer. As touched upon earlier, the Bruins organization as a whole prides itself on grit and determination, the “tougher to play against” motto ingrained in the minds of every single player who dons the Spoked B. The scouting staff looks to draft players who fit that mold, and the coaching staff, from the AHL on upward, attempts to instill those ideals in the players.

The problem, of course, is that not every player is naturally suited for that role. Mark Messier would epitomize the Bruins idea of the perfect player, but would he have won six Stanley Cups if he wasn’t riding shotgun with the best player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, who just so happened to be softer than a roll of Charmin Double Ply? The tough love approach works for many players, but in this instance, it failed. Management should’ve realized that a long time ago with Kessel, and in the end, it probably cost the Bruins about 40 goals a year for the foreseeable future.

Although it comes after the fact, I think my biggest issue with the Bruins role in all of this comes with their handling of the situation from the get go, and culminates in the absolute hatchet job they’ve committed on Kessel’s character after shuttling him out of town. There’s no question that Kessel was an introverted, shy player who never really fit in here, and there’s also no question he’s mostly responsible for requesting a trade. Still, the manner in which Chiarelli and Co. have handled his departure should be documented and taught in a class called “How Not To Handle a Difficult Situation” and followed up with “Hatchet Jobs 101.”

Their approach in handling the Kessel saga is reminiscent of the Red Sox’ handling of players like Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra, one-time superstars who were eventually sent packing and ingloriously ripped apart by the savage Boston media. Kessel’s situation is no different, as a number of local media outlets portrayed Kessel as the lone bad guy, when in reality both parties have to shoulder the blame.

Take for instance this article in Saturday’s Boston Herald, written by Stephen Harris. Normally an incredibly informative beat writer who never succumbs to the bush league tactics other local sportswriters like Dan Shaughnessy employ on a regular basis, Harris nevertheless shows even the best falter at times, writing an article rampant with thinly-veiled potshots at Kessel’s playing style, character, and reputation in the dressing room. Worse still, he chooses to release this article after the Kessel ordeal is over. Either Harris chose to sit on the fact that Kessel had been planning to leave town since last season, or (more likely) he was given this information by “sources” close to the Bruins who wished to save face in the entire ordeal.

Similarly, Peter Chiarelli was less than professional in his press conference Saturday, referring to Kessel only as “the player” and saying unequivocally that Kessel was the one who wanted out. That may have been the case, but the Bruins unwillingness to make Kessel a priority early on this offseason was never given any discussion, when there’s a strong chance it had everything to do with Kessel’s ultimate decision to request a trade.

Parting Thoughts

In the end, there was a lot of blame to go around, and worst of all, it probably all could have been avoided, had Kessel been a bit thicker skinned, had Julien been a bit more understanding, and had Chiarelli been a bit more prudent in his handling of top assets.

Instead, Kessel got his money, the Bruins rid themselves of a player they felt didn’t fit into their team dynamic, and, at least in the short term, the Bruins are short one of the game’s most electrifying young players. Here’s hoping they can spin some of those newly acquired picks into a top-shelf sniper at the deadline.

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One comment for “Plenty of Blame To Go Around In Kessel Saga”

  1. [...] and nurture a new line to account for Phil Kessel’s departure. Kessel’s fame shouldn’t lead the Bruins to believe no one else can perform just as well. And [...]

    Posted by Advice for Bruins as Season Approaches | Sports of Boston | September 24, 2009, 6:34 am

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