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Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Kessel has earned big bucks in Leafs' eyes

By Pierre LeBrun



MONTREAL -- Before the Maple Leafs were going to throw numbers out at his agents, GM Dave Nonis needed to first hear from Phil Kessel that he wanted to stay in Toronto for a long time.

Nonis wanted that commitment, face-to-face, before he was going to get serious in contract talks with Newport Sports. He got the answer he wanted from the Team USA Olympic winger in a meeting last week, which gave the Leafs' GM the trigger he needed to get the ball rolling with agent Wade Arnott.

"I said this before camp, we weren't about to throw any money at any player, Phil included, until we were sure, I was comfortable, that he wanted to stay in Toronto," Nonis said at a noon-hour news conference at the Bell Centre. "He brought up to me last week how important it was to stay. And that’s when we started negotiations."

"I want to finish my career here," Kessel said at the same news conference. "It would be a great city to win in, and we're going to do whatever we can to make that happen."

Don't underestimate Toronto’s ability to re-sign center Tyler Bozak on July 5 as a major factor in Kessel staying put. The two linemates are very close friends off the ice; heck, they live together. Had Bozak walked, and he did test free agency before circling back to the Leafs, it might have hampered Toronto’s ability to re-sign Kessel.

Having said that, talks didn’t get going with Kessel for real until last week after the Nonis-Kessel meeting.

With Kessel’s self-imposed deadline of opening night acting as the pressure point because the star player didn't want to discuss an extension during the season, both sides came together Tuesday morning on a $64 million, eight-year contract.

For one, the Leafs shared Kessel’s desire not to have this drag into the season. There was concern that it would affect his production on the ice as his contractual future hung over him.

So there was mutual interest in seeing this done.

Many will believe it's too much money for Kessel, but the numbers, at least, suggest otherwise:

• Only Kessel and Steven Stamkos were among the top 10 scorers in the NHL each of the past two seasons.

• Only Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux have more points than Kessel over the past two seasons.

• And only Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry have more goals than Kessel over the past three years.

Kessel’s $8 million cap hit in the new deal is still less than Giroux's new deal ($8.275M), Perry's ($8.625M) and Ryan Getzlaf's ($8.25M), the three contracts brought up the most in negotiations by Kessel’s camp.

"He’s had several great years, that’s something some people overlook," Nonis said. "If you look at his goal totals and his point totals over the past few years, he’s up there with some pretty elite players."

But perhaps most importantly for the Leafs was Kessel’s playoff performance last season, when he proved he could step up in the clutch and was terrific against Boston in a seven-game first-round loss.

That erased any concern that the Leafs' front office might have had about building a team around Kessel.

"It certainly opened some eyes," Nonis said of that series.

So now the attention turns to Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, whose contract will expire after the season. But unlike Kessel, the star blueliner doesn't care if talks go into the season. As he pointed out to ESPN.com on Tuesday morning, the last contract he signed was done during the season with the Calgary Flames, so it’s not new territory.

Phaneuf said he'll leave it with his Newport Sports agents Don Meehan and Craig Oster, knowing they'll figure something out with Nonis.

"They’ll get together and talk, they’ll handle it," a totally relaxed Phaneuf said.

If anything, Phaneuf was more excited for his teammate's big signing. Which perhaps, in some ways, affects how he viewed his future with the Leafs.

"I really like what we’re doing here, what direction the team is headed in," Phaneuf said. "Phil is a huge signing for us. It’s great news. He’s one of the top forwards in the game, such an important guy for us. He’s really elevated his game the last few years. This is great."

Kessel’s deal includes $22.5 million in signing-bonus money that’s spread over the first four years of the deal and the last two years of the contract. Of interest, his last two years of his deal carry only a $1 million salary, and the rest is bonus money, protected against a possible lockout because bonus money gets paid out regardless, whereas salaries do not in the event of another lockout.

Crease conundrum
One of the hot topics all season for Toronto will be goaltending, with newly acquired Jonathan Bernier trying to unseat incumbent James Reimer as starter.

The two have stalls next to each other in the visitors dressing room at the Bell Centre, but only one of them was smiling Tuesday morning.
Reimer was thrilled to be getting the opening night nod in net, while Bernier -- while saying all the right things -- did admit he was a bit disappointed, citing that family and friends would be on hand in his hometown. He’ll very likely start Wednesday night in Philadelphia as the Leafs play back-to-back, but it’s obvious that Bernier would have loved to start in his native province on Tuesday night.