Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Kessel, Marner, Matthews & Salary Cap

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to review Phil Kessel’s time with the team. I also want to share speculation about which Maple Leafs are likely to make Team Canada for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Hyman, Robertson, Tavares & Matthews

Third, I want to share two almost unbelievable Auston Matthews plays from the 2019-20 season. Finally, I want to consider how the CBA’s flat salary cap might impact the future of the team.

Item One: Looking Back at Phil Kessel’s Time with the Maple Leafs

Phil Kessel is one of those players people either love or hate. There is something about him that stirs the pot – a quirky personality or an aloofness that almost seems sullen. He was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Arizona Coyotes before this season amidst much fanfare. It wasn’t a good season for him, and he didn’t produce his normal numbers. Still, he didn’t miss a game, which stretched his ironman streak to 844 games – the sixth-longest in NHL history.

Phil Kessel Maple Leafs
Phil Kessel when he played with the Maple Leafs. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He was a point-per-game player in 2018-19 with the Penguins (scoring 27 goals and 55 assists in 82 games), but this season he scored only 38 points (14 goals) in 70 games. Is the explosiveness he’s shown in the past gone? If it is, will his $8 million contract for two more seasons become an albatross for the Coyotes?

Kessel was brought to the Maple Leafs in a 2009 trade with the Boston Bruins in exchange for a first- and a second-round pick in the 2010 Draft and a first-round pick in the 2011 Draft. With those picks, the Bruins drafted Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight (who kicked around in the minors for several seasons, never skated in the NHL, and retired from hockey after playing the 2016-17 season in Denmark), and Dougie Hamilton. Seguin and Hamilton have had stellar NHL careers.

Related: Phil Kessel – Biography

Kessel played six seasons in Toronto – his longest tenure with any club. He played 446 games and scored 181 goals, 231 assists (for 394 points). Despite his personal success, it wasn’t a time of organizational success. The team only made the postseason once during his time here.

Kessel was, in the evolution of the Maple Leafs, present at the end of the pre-Brendan Shanahan days. Shanahan was hired in April 2014 and oversaw Kessel’s last season.

Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winter Classic, Tom Turk, The Hockey Writers, THW, Hockey, NHL
Phil Kessel (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

The bottom line on Kessel was that he was a consistent 30-goal scorer in his time in the Blue and White; simply, a scorer who scored. In Toronto, he became the 20th all-time point producer in franchise history and 18th in goal scoring.

Kessel’s an interesting story and, although he’s been a great player, his reputation has followed him around. As The Hockey NewsKen Campbell wrote in an article after Kessel was traded to the Coyotes,

“If you want a guy who is going to lead the way and show your young players how to be the best they can be, he’s probably not your guy. But here’s a newsflash: the NHL is still about scoring more goals than your opponent. And few do it better than Kessel.”

Item Two: 3 Maple Leafs Players on Team Canada 2022 Beijing Olympics?

Recently Sportsnet predicted which members of the Maple Leafs might join Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Three made that list: forwards Mitch Marner and John Tavares and defenseman Morgan Rielly.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner celebrates with Morgan Rielly. Both are projected as possible Team Canada players. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

In fact, Sportsnet went so far as to predict where these players might line up with Marner on the third line with two Tampa Bay Lightning players – left-winger Steven Stamkos and center Brayden Point. Calling this “The Atlantic Line,” Sportsnet noted that the trio brings together stars from two of the highest-powered offences in the division.

Pairing Stamkos, a six-time NHL All-Star, with Point, one of the top young centers in the game, seems like a no-brainer because of their pre-existing chemistry. Then the article stated, “The idea of seeing Marner set free with these two — think of the one-timer setups! — is too fun a scenario to not run away with.”

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Sportsnet shifted Tavares to left-wing on a line with the St. Louis Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly and the Vegas Golden Knights’ Mark Stone to make perhaps the most versatile trio on the team. 

Finally, the article paired Rielly with Dougie Hamilton, who I mentioned earlier. Rielly and Hamilton are two of the most mobile defensemen in the NHL, and their pairing gives Team Canada two young veterans who can assume leadership roles during the Olympics.

Item Three: The Best Auston Matthews Plays of the 2019-20 Regular Season

How good is Auston Matthews? Just watch the plays below to see his creativity and skill. Last week, the Maple Leafs tweeted the two best Maple Leafs plays of the season, which are also two of Matthews’ greatest plays.

Below, in the tweets, you can see how amazing this young center truly is:

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The new collective bargaining agreement features a flat salary cap. How that impacts the Maple Leafs remains to be seen, however, three things seem clear to me:

First, the Maple Leafs’ core forwards of Tavares, Matthews, Marner, and William Nylander probably will stay together – no surprise really – for the next few seasons.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Second, general manager Kyle Dubas and now head coach Sheldon Keefe have bet the house on a vision of the team that includes speed, skill, and puck control. That won’t likely change. For better or worse, the Maple Leafs have committed and there simply can’t be u-turns with a fixed cap and player movement that’s likely to become more stagnant.

Third, a team built around its stars will continue to evolve mostly by tweaking the edges. As I noted in yesterday’s post about the senior director of player evaluation, Jim Paliafito, this means that changes will rely on bringing up prospects from the Toronto Marlies or signing European players on entry-level contracts.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Maroon, Nylander, Barrie, Keefe & Rielly

Does the flat cap mean that this iteration of the Maple Leafs is the best team fans will see in Toronto? I might disagree with most commentators because I don’t think it is for two reasons: First, the players on the roster this season will continue to grow and improve. Second, I believe the Maple Leafs have an advantage over other teams in that their front office is both intelligent and more creative about hockey matters.

I might be wrong, but this conversation will continue over time.