Don't expect a quick end to Phil Kessel saga
Phil Kessel has yet to determine whether he wants to remain with the Maple Leafs.
And the truth: The Leafs have yet to determine whether they will trade away their highest-paid and highest-scoring player — now, as the NHL trade deadline approaches, or later, as in Florida at draft time in June.
This is a confounding and troubling time for the Leafs, their players, their management team, and for their one genuine star player. There is no right answer here. There is no simple solution. There is no path without resistance.
There is a whole lot of media noise, a lot of meaningless speculation on social media, a lot of fodder for talk radio and there is mostly silence from the normally unavailable Kessel and from a Leafs front office that isn’t about to map out its plans to rebuild in any public forum.
This has been a dreadful time for both Kessel and the Leafs, even though he scored Tuesday night. If he reads the papers or turns on broadcast media — which I’m told he doesn’t — the conversation is basically endless. If he was aware of everything that’s been said about him, he might call his agent, Wade Arnott, right away and put some pressure to get him moved out of town — as soon as possible.
Honestly, why would anyone want to stay in a place where people question his heart, his leadership, his conditioning, his consistency, his dedication, his accountability, his willingness to compete?
All that, the real and the facetious, is enough for enough to take. But when you’re being stripped down limb by limb and torn apart right down to a hockey emperor without clothes ... By then, it doesn’t matter if you make $1 million or $10 million, if you hear it, experience it, understand it, get the sense of this exasperated hockey town, it has to hurt. The money means little if this isn’t where you want to be. The money won’t buy you hockey happiness.
But, so far, Kessel has avoided making the “Get-me-out-of-here” call. Some might argue his play post-firing of Randy Carlyle has been his non-verbal declaration.
This much the Leafs have to understand: When the club began to collapse, last season after the Olympics, and this year after the coach firing, Kessel couldn’t be counted upon.
He stopped scoring post-Olympics and has stopped scoring post-Carlyle. That can be attributed to his play. That can be attributed to the play of his centre, Tyler Bozak. But there aren’t enough fingers on the hand to point in all kinds of directions here. But with Kessel, because he’s Kessel, because there always seems to be a “Yeah, but” with him no matter what he does, there is no obvious way to proceed.
And the story spreads in this new media world we reluctantly live in the way so many stories spread, with supposition but not facts, with dubious reporting indicating one thing, but, really, it’s just more hockey fiction. Toronto is a great place to play when you win. But when you lose — and lose large as this Leafs team is doing — it becomes the kind of place you want to run from: Every day there seems a crisis now, some invented, some real.
And there is no clarity, partly because Kessel doesn’t allow it, won’t participate in it, partly because in today’s don’t-get-to-know athletes or build-relationships world, the business has gotten more fuzzy. There is more guessing than ever before. There is more reaching. There is less to know and more to talk about. There aren’t enough Bob McKenzies to go around, who know rather than assume. Clarity has gone missing in this new time of non-stop media and clarity is necessary now.
The other day, a report out of Florida had the Panthers interested in Kessel. That was the talk Monday. By early and late Tuesday, it was clear the Leafs and Panthers hadn’t spoken about Kessel at all. And news editors at every platform were demanding follow-up stories to a story that wasn’t a story.
And the wheels on the bus go round and round.
Very likely, the Leafs will treat Kessel as the asset he is. They will put a price on him. They will invite offers from the eight teams he can be traded to in keeping with the conditions of his eight-year contract. And maybe the Leafs will invite offers from other teams, hoping that all this has become so toxic it needs an intervention.
But it might take a few months for all parties to determine how this will play out. There are too many moving parts right now. Frustration is everywhere.
The noise is bound to continue, but don’t expect any quick end to this. It’s hard to know what to expect at all.