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Friday, September 18, 2009
With Kessel, future is now for Leafs

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Much will be said and written in the coming days about Toronto GM Brian Burke mortgaging the future to acquire his magnificent obsession, former Boston forward Phil Kessel.

And with his giving up two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick Friday for a young player who has three NHL seasons under his belt and is coming off offseason shoulder surgery, the temptation will be to suggest Burke overpaid.

Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel had 36 goals and 24 assists in 70 games last season for the Bruins.

Toronto, after all, is a team that has become unparalleled at mismanaging its young assets. They have squandered draft picks with poor scouting; they have traded away picks for aging, overpaid veterans; they have rushed prospects and cut youngsters loose without giving them a proper showing only to see them pop up and thrive with other franchises.

When you don't win a Stanley Cup in more than a generation (the Maple Leafs last won a championship in 1967, two years before the Summer of Love), you really have to work at it, and the Leafs definitely have done that.

And here is Burke, in his first full season as Leafs GM, calmly dumping three prime draft picks for Kessel.

Those draft picks are enticing and mysterious because they represent the great unknown of the future. They are to be treasured and coveted and protected because they might represent something like a Sidney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin. One never knows. And now that they are gone, that possibility is gone with them.

Except here's the thing about the future: No one ever knows.

If Burke held on to every single first- or second-round draft pick for the next five years, there are no guarantees he would find anything remotely approaching a Crosby or an Ovechkin -- or a Kessel.

Because as much as those three draft picks have some sort of value moving forward for the Bruins and Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, they pale in comparison with Kessel because Kessel is that wildly attractive asset: He is known and he is also the future.

Burke didn't mortgage the future to acquire an aging veteran, something Leafs fans have become intimately familiar with through the years; he swapped an unknown future for a player who will turn 22 at the start of this season and is coming off a 36-goal campaign.

Kessel, the No. 5 pick in 2006, added six postseason goals in 11 games for the Bruins this spring. And based on the need to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff, it seems he was playing in some pain and still producing.

We had a chance to chat with a respected NHL executive this week, and the Kessel situation came up. When it was suggested it looked as if the Leafs were preparing to sell the farm, the executive shook his head.

First, this executive loves Kessel and figures he is one of the most dangerous players in the NHL in the most difficult places on the ice -- in close to the net. He also pointed out that if Burke has five years left on his deal in Toronto, the chances of any of those draft picks having an impact on the Leafs in that time frame was minimal. So what is the risk for Burke?

Kessel? He's a kid who has proved himself.

Scoring Class

With Phil Kessel's trade to Toronto, the Leafs acquired one of the league's top young goal scorers from last season. Here's a look at the most regular-season goals from players under the age of 23 in the 2008-09 season:

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals:
56 goals (age 23)
Phil Kessel, Bruins:
36 goals (age 21)
Loui Eriksson, Stars:
36 goals (age 23)
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins:
35 goals (age 22)

--Source: ESPN Stats and Information

Now, just as there are no guarantees with high draft picks, there are no assurances Kessel will be a star in Toronto. Indeed, the young player has proved to be somewhat contrary. He couldn't get along with Boston coach Claude Julien and couldn't agree with Chiarelli on what his value was to the club.

Will Kessel like Toronto coach Ron Wilson any better? Who knows. Wilson is as sharp-tongued as they come, and there will be no mollycoddling of Kessel no matter how many draft picks were sacrificed to make him a Leaf.

We had a chance to chat with Kessel in Chicago at the U.S. Olympic orientation camp last month and found him surprisingly effusive and congenial. Does that mean he'll thrive in Toronto? No. But it means he is a young man who is developing his own personality off the ice, as well as establishing an impressive game on the ice.

As for the Bruins, the defending Eastern Conference champions were in a tough spot in trying to unload Kessel, and Chiarelli came away with three very attractive assets. Of course, the Bruins are more interested in winning a Cup than in accumulating assets, and those draft picks won't magically score goals or check opposing forwards this season. But come February and the trade deadline, those Leafs draft picks might look even more attractive to some team with derailed playoff dreams that is looking to move an expensive soon-to-be free agent.

By spring, Kessel might be making Leafs fans forget those draft picks while the Bruins are turning those future assets into something more immediate and ultimately more rewarding, the team's first Cup championship since 1972.

But that's the thing about the future; no one knows for sure until it gets here.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.