Should They Stay or Should They Go: The Phil Kessel Edition

Well, Babcock is in, and the city of Toronto is buzzing. And with good reason. Obviously, a good coach is a crucial component of any winning franchise. But at the end of the day, it is the players that will determine just how successful the Leafs will be. Babcock’s arrival does not change the fact that a complete rebuild is the necessary next step in creating a franchise that will compete for years to come. So even with the new coach, the question remains, what will be done with the current Leaf roster? Who fits into the long-term plans? Who should stay and who should go?

I wrote about Tyler Bozak last week, and came to the unsurprising conclusion that he should indeed be moved this off-season. This was hardly a controversial stance to take, and nor should it be. 

In that piece, much of the discussion regarding Bozak necessarily involved his line mate and good buddy, the King of the Dad Bod, Phil Kessel. This guy has to be one of the most polarizing players ever in Toronto sports. He is certainly one of the most gifted and productive players to ever put on the Leaf uniform, but even as a Kessel fan, there are downfalls that must be acknowledged. Many questions linger this off-season as to whether Kessel should continue to be a part of the Leaf roster, and I would like to try and tackle this issue head on. In making this assessment, it is important to evaluate not only Kessel’s value as a player, but the current situation of the Leaf franchise.

Nobody can deny Kessel’s offensive ability. The guy racks up points at a pace that I think many Leaf fans fail to fully appreciate. Sure, he had a bit of an “off year” this season, but realistically, putting up 61 points in today’s low scoring NHL isn’t actually that terrible, especially when you consider his supporting cast. Even with that off year, here is the list of NHL players with more points than Phil over the last four seasons:

  • Claude Giroux (300)
  • Evgeni Malkin (284)
  • Alexander Ovechkin (281)
  • Sidney Crosby (281)
  • John Tavares (280)

That’s it. Obviously that’s some good company to be in. Now, if we take a look at the quality of the teammates (TMCF%, i.e. teammate Corsi percentage) and the quality of the competition (OppCF%, i.e. opponent Corsi percentage) that these guys face at 5v5 over this same period, and rank them based on this data, this is what you get:

Quality of Competition Quality of Teammates
C. Giroux (50.2%) S. Crosby (51.0%)
S. Crosby (50.2%) E. Malkin (50.6%)
J. Tavares (50.2%) C. Giroux (49.3%)
P. Kessel (50.1%) A. Ovechkin (49.1%)
E. Malkin (50.0%) J. Tavares (48.3%)
A. Ovechkin (50.0%) P. Kessel (44.4%)

*Data collected from Puckalytics.com

In essence, the level of competition that Kessel has faced over his five year career with the Leafs has been pretty comparable to other elite scorers in the NHL, while at the same time, he has had far less help from his teammates. This makes his offensive output over the last few years all the more impressive. He has carried the team, offensively, for his entire stint with the Leafs.

And yet, even with his elite offensive talent, he is often criticized, in large part because his defense is poor. Yes, his defense is bad. I don’t care how much of a Kessel fan you are, this can’t really be argued. Over his last five seasons with the Leafs, his CF% of 46.4% (according to Puckalytics.com) has consistently ranked among the lowest in the NHL. This weakness has been all the more exposed given that he has played most of his time with other poor defensive players, like Bozak, JVR, and Lupul.

But is it fair to direct so much hate toward him for his defense? Guys like Crosby, Datsyuk, Toews, and the Sedins who score at an elite level but also play great defense are few and far between. Obviously, in an ideal world, Kessel plays great defense in addition to his elite offence. But can we not just appreciate him for what he is: an elite offensive force. Look at guys like Kane, Johansen, St. Louis, and Stamkos. None of them are strong defensive players, and yet people seem to be just fine with how they play. I, too, wish Kessel could step up his defensive game, I wish he back-checked harder and won more puck battles, but there is still a lot that we can appreciate about him.

Besides defense, people hate on Kessel for a litany of reasons. First, he doesn’t skate much in the off-season, according to the man himself. Sure, maybe you would expect NHL players to skate more in the off-season, but unless there has been some revelation that I haven’t heard about (and please let me know if that is the case), nobody really knows exactly what his off-season training entails. What we do know is that he hasn’t missed a game since 2009. And what has been reported is that Kessel came into camp last season as one of the top three fittest players, along with prospect Connor Brown, and other guy Cody Donaghy. So he’s doing something right with his training, is he not? Admittedly, I haven’t played hockey at an elite level, but it doesn’t make sense to me that people automatically equate not skating much in the off-season to not training much in the off-season. There is most definitely a difference. Yeah, he has an impressive cookie gut, but it’s working for him.

Then there’s his personality. No, he’s not exactly a vibrant character, nor does he seem like the sharpest tool in the shed. He says “right” way too often during his interviews, and overall, he doesn’t handle media very well. He doesn’t fight (for the most part), and doesn’t make big hits or get in the middle of scrums. He’s an introvert, and in the overbearing and intense Toronto hockey market, that type personality certainly isn’t the best fit, and it often gets mistaken for a lack of passion. Toronto sports fans tend to love guys with a more colourful personality, both on and off the ice: think guys like Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Wendel Clark, and Doug Gilmour. Sure, it’s entertaining to have those types of players. But is the fact that he doesn’t fit this mold a good reason to not like him? I would say no. He brings his own elite skill set to the table. At the end of the day, he produces more than almost anyone in the league, and I think that’s what he should be judged on, more than his personality. No, he probably won’t be the captain of any teams during his career, but if he keeps producing at the rate that he has, I’m fine with that.

And yeah, he looks creepy in an elf costume. But you know what, he’s our creepy elf who racks up points like it’s nobody’s business.

So, obviously, I do like Kessel. There are things he could certainly improve on, but all in all, he’s a fantastic player. I believe that much of the hate for him in this city is unwarranted. And if the Leafs were a contending team, or on the verge of being one, they would be crazy to move him. However, given the current Leaf situation, I think that it would benefit both the team and Kessel to trade him away. Not because he’s poor defensively, not because he doesn’t skate a lot in the off-season, and not because of his personality, but instead, simply because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep him around, given the current state of the franchise. He’s 27 now, and it will be quite a while before the Leafs are good again, unfortunately. This has only been reaffirmed by recent comments from Shanahan and Babcock, speaking to the long road ahead for Leaf fans. Keeping Kessel around during these lean years would not be beneficial to him or the Leafs, in the long term. Yes, he might move them up a couple spots in the standings, but at this stage, I don’t think that’s what Leaf fans really want, nor is it what is needed. By the time the Leafs are ready to contend again, Kessel may be well past his prime. If a true rebuild is going to take place, Kessel will have to be moved soon, whether that means this off-season, or another time in the near future. It makes sense to maximize the return for him while you can.

While nobody, including me, can possibly know how Kessel will play in the coming years, I’m aware that some people are in favour of keeping Kessel around temporarily, because of the worry that they might be selling low on him after one “bad” season. Personally, I don’t think this past season brought his stock down much at all. A 61 point season on such an awful team, and during such a low scoring season in the NHL, is far from terrible. Most GMs are smarter than they get credit for, and I would be willing to bet that at least a few will be salivating over the idea of attaining an elite offensive player, like Kessel, for their top line. Judging from some of the reports out there, Kessel could fetch a very intriguing package of young assets and draft picks that could make a major contribution to the Leaf rebuild. Yes, his $8 million cap hit may reduce the amount of teams able to pursue him, but his contract isn’t actually as terrible as it’s made out to be. While it’s difficult to know for certain until a deal has been made, I am as close to certain as you can be that there will be significant interest in him. For the Leafs, it makes sense to bottom out over the next couple of years. And getting rid of Kessel is a good way of doing that. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to assessing how well Kessel will play next year, and well into the future. The fact is, nobody knows. Whether the hiring of Babcock changes anything regarding Kessel is certainly up for debate. Damien Cox, among others, has argued that the Leafs should keep Kessel around and let Babcock turn him into a better asset. Realistically though, we don’t know what kind of impact, if any, Babcock will have on him. There’s no guarantee, at all, that Kessel will be much better than he was last season. While some definitely disagree, Kessel has high value right now, even after a disappointing season, and it would be a shame to throw away a potentially game-changing trade package for the sake of a few more years of Kessel while the Leafs sit near the bottom of the standings. I don’t think the hiring of a new coach should alter the path that needs to be taken by the Leafs in order to achieve long-term success.

And for Kessel, he deserves better. Toronto has heaped too much pressure on Kessel from day one. He’s an elite scorer, but he isn’t a franchise player like Crosby, Toews, Doughty, Price, Lundqvist, Karlsson and others. He needs to play on a team where he isn’t expected to be the franchise player, because he simply isn’t built to take on that role. He was expected to carry this team on his own, and when he didn’t do that, people turned on him. Kessel would benefit greatly from joining a good team where he doesn’t have to be the number one guy all the time, and where he doesn’t have the media constantly breathing down his neck. I truly think that he could put a lot of teams over the top to the level where they can compete for a Stanley Cup.

As I’ve said, I like him, and think he gets a really bad rap in Toronto. I have a feeling that Leaf fans won’t fully appreciate what they had until he’s gone. But for the sake of the Leafs rebuild, and for the sake of Kessel, I hope the Leafs move him this off-season, and I hope Kessel gets to continue his career in a hockey market that he is better suited to play in.

 

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2 thoughts on “Should They Stay or Should They Go: The Phil Kessel Edition

  1. Good article. I found your opinions on Kessel to be far more informed than what is typical of Toronto fans.

    However, I think the better question is “Does what we could get from trading Kessel now help us more in the future, than keeping Kessel and waiting until we’re competitive again?”

    If yes, trade him and if no, hold. There’s not a lot of point tearing it down for the sake of tearing it down and throwing away good players just because “they deserve better.” Especially with the way the lottery system is being restructured it’s not a good idea to go full Edmonton

    Keep in mind elite players don’t decline nearly as hard and as much as you might not want to believe it, this is selling low. He’s had his lowest PDO, TOI and On-Ice Sh% during his entire tenure in Toronto. The presumption “Most GMs are smarter than they get credit for” is a pretty controversial topic to anyone who is invested in advanced stats. I personally think the market will be better come the next trade deadline.

    Lastly using OppCF% is, to my understanding, no longer a popular way to compare opposition since for anyone who has played over a meaningfully large sample size, this typically regresses to 50% anyway. The averaged TOI of opposition might be a better way (see http://war-on-ice.com/)

    Also I found the text on this page a little hard to read with the colours you’ve chosen.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading and for the well thought out comment.

      I agree with you on a lot of what you said. The question “Does what we could get from trading Kessel now help us more in the future, than keeping Kessel and waiting until we’re competitive again?” is certainly an important one. And as I mentioned in the post, the fact is, nobody knows how Kessel will perform next year and further into the future beyond next season.

      You raise a good point about his career low shooting percentage, and that might have been a good thing for me to address in the post. That will more than likely improve next season, regardless of where he is playing, as it was a bit of an outlier in his career. The regression in his PDO and TOI also likely played a minor role in his lowered productivity, but I don’t think either of those would have had a major effect. Regarding PDO specifically, I would say he was more lucky in the previous couple years than he was unlucky this past season. But yes, you’re right, for these reasons, it is plausible that he could have a better season next year.

      In my view though, it’s just as likely that he could have just as bad, or even a worse season, next season. If this rebuild is going to happen, which it ought to, a lot of assets that were a part of the team this past season will probably be gone before the season starts. It will definitely be more challenging him for him to rack up points with such a weak roster. And while I acknowledge that it is often the case that elite players don’t decline as quickly as others, the fact is, every player is different. Kessel is now at the age where it would not be shocking to see his production begin to slowly decline. I think that despite his weak half-season, he still has sky-high trade value (of course none of us can be sure, and it would appear we might disagree on that), and it would be a risk to hold onto him and see that value diminish. As I said in the post, I am open to holding onto him for a short while if necessary (next deadline or next off-season), but the longer they wait, the more they are taking a gamble. Also, given his cap hit, I would disagree with you that the market will be better at the deadline. I would most teams will have the flexibility to take on such a contract during an off-season.

      Regarding my use of OppCF%, I do realize the drawback that you mentioned. Personally, I don’t really find that averaged TOI of the opposition is ideal either. I’m still somewhat new to advanced stats, and I haven’t found a stat that properly evaluates the quality of competition. I guess there are limitations, even with advanced stats. I do appreciate the recommendation, though.

      And lastly, regarding the colour scheme, Jordan and I have been discussing switching up the layout of the site a little bit. Neither of us are experienced with designing websites, so bare with us in the meantime.

      Thanks again for reading!

      Like

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