Kessel set to return to Beantown

December, 4, 2009

Good thing for Phil Kessel that Boston sports fans don't hold a grudge. Just ask Bill Buckner. Or Roger Clemens. Or Johnny Damon.

That Kessel will be booed Saturday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Bruins is a fait accompli. The question is, how many years will fans view him as Public Enemy No. 1.

His exit from Boston was a fascinating one, to be sure.

There have been different tales spun from different camps. No matter whom you believe, it's hard to know for sure exactly what happened.

For example, one side will insist Kessel essentially asked for a trade during the summer, something the kid himself denied upon his arrival in Toronto. His agent, Wade Arnott of Newport Sports, also said a trade was never demanded.

"But it was mutually evident from both sides by the end of the summer that it wouldn't work in Boston," Arnott told this week.

Boston's last contract offer, confirmed by all sides, was $16 million over four years, a carbon copy of the deal Jordan Staal signed in Pittsburgh. The answer was "no thanks," and by then it was clear Kessel was on his way out. But where exactly?

Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, to his credit, had Kessel in his sights from the get-go and never lost sight of the prize. Remember, he nearly acquired him via trade on the eve of the NHL draft in Montreal this past June. Some NHL executives questioned his tactics in the way he ultimately acquired Kessel, but since the kid was a restricted free agent, I'm not sure where you draw the line. Any team was allowed to reach out to Kessel's camp as of July 1.

There was substantial interest in Kessel, a 21-year-old winger coming off a 36-goal season. No surprise there. From what I'm told, the other two best competing offers the Bruins received were from the Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings, but neither of those teams was willing to pay the $27 million over five years the Leafs would give Kessel, and that was the most important factor. Burke used the mighty Toronto financial advantage to outmuscle the competition.

Another factor that shouldn't be lost in all this is Kessel wanted to play in Toronto; and him being a free agent, even if restricted, gave Toronto important leverage.

Finally, as August became September, the Bruins were definitely cornered. The message from Leafs camp was clear: Take our trade offer or we slap an offer sheet on the kid. It's not like the Bruins gave him away. Two first-round picks and a second-round pick make a sizable package, one that was better than the compensation from an offer sheet.

And that's why the story is far from complete. Just how high those picks end up being for Boston is a tantalizing part of the tale that's yet to unfold.

Meanwhile in Toronto, Kessel has been every bit as good as advertised, if not better. His dazzling array of offensive skill is exactly what Burke needed to bring to his rebuilding club, the kind of high-end talent that was nowhere to be seen on his roster when he inherited it a year ago.

So maybe everyone goes away happy in this deal? Too early to tell. Only thing we all know at this point is Bruins fans will show Kessel just how they feel about it Saturday night.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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