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The Kessel trade: One year later

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The day the rebuild began

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Originally published on July 1, 2016, this post was republished as part of Retro May in 2020.

It’s been one year since the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The move truly signalled the rebuild of the Toronto Maple Leafs has begun and the new regimes first significant roster decision was made.


To Pittsburgh: Phil Kessel, Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon, and a 2016 2nd round pick

To Toronto: Nick Spaling, Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, 2016 1st round pick, 2016 3rd round pick. Toronto retains $1.2 million of Kessel salary for the duration of the contract.


There was much ink, both real and virtual, spilled about the details of the trade, and of the consequences, both immediate and far reaching. I won’t get into any of that.

No matter what you think of the trade, or who went and who came back, that’s all moot at this point. My view of things one year later is that the Maple Leafs would be in a very different position than they are now if they hadn’t made this trade.

30 more goals for could have meant drafting 8th overall.

No 30th overall pick means we go into the season with Bernier as the starter again.

No "good bye Phil" post means we wouldn’t have had so much fun with hot dogs.

(Sorry, but I’m contractually obligated to mention that every time Kessel comes up)

The Toronto Maple Leafs went to the bottom of the league. They finished last overall, they left the kids to develop on the Marlies for the majority of the season. They won the draft lottery and have the future #1 centre they’ve always needed, and have some potentially first line wingers to go with him. The future for the Maple Leafs is legitimately bright for the first time since that fateful day in Quebec City, when Mats Sundin entered our lives.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

They don’t need a paragraph about what they did. One sentence sums it up.


The Players:

Phil Kessel: 106GP - 36 Goals - 45 Assists - 81 Points - 1 Stanley Cup
Tyler Biggs: Split the season with Wilkes-Barre (AHL) & Wheeling (ECHL)
Tim Erixon: 75 GP with Wilkes-Barre (AHL). 5 goals, 21 assists.
2016 3rd round pick: #61 - Kasper Bjorkqvist

Nick Spaling: Traded to San Jose Sharks with Roman Polak for Raffi Torres & two 2nd round picks (‘17/’18)
Kasperi Kapanen: Spent the season with the Marlies. 9 goals, 16 assists. 0 points in 9 NHL games.
Scott Harrington: 15 NHL games, 1 point. 17 AHL games, 3 points.
2016 1st round pick: #30 - Traded for Frederik Andersen2016
3rd round pick: #73 - James J.D. Greenway


Both teams involved in this trade got exactly what they wanted. Toronto got a fresh start and free of a long-term, expensive contract. The Penguins won the second Stanley Cup with their core of Letang, Malkin, and Crosby.

Phil Kessel won the Stanley Cup and led the Penguins in scoring. He achieved a dream he’s had all of his life, and will have another shot at it next year. The Maple Leafs in the past 6 years never went into a season with a legitimate chance.

Trades are always looked at as having a winner and a loser.

This trade had two winners.



Personally, that day was not fun. I didn’t have the foresight in the moment. I didn’t see it with this outcome.

I also watched my son feel hockey break his heart for the first time (he was too young to stay up for 4-1). His favourite player, no longer on his favourite team. I tell him as we walk down the street, and he is silent, then looks up and asks "but why?" Eleven months later we’re sitting on the couch watching game six of the finals. He’s vibrating with excitement as he counts down the timer. It ends, he screams in excitement, happy and proud.

"They’re still stupid for trading him" he says. Too young to understand the business, he saw three of his favourite NHLers traded away in those eleven months. Phaneuf to Ottawa, Reimer to San Jose. He’s still a Leafs fan, still believes they’ll win the cup next year.



For me, this is the best result. I’ve never seen a proper attempt at a rebuild, some quickie turnaround attempts, but nothing with patience. With today being free agency day, I can only hope that patience continues.

You have my trust, Shanaplan. Don’t let me down.