For a team that went 34-35-13 and finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last year, you might think that the Maple Leafs’ acquisition of Phil Kessel would perhaps add to the excitement surrounding the team but still wouldn’t set expectations too high.
After the introductory news conference for the newly acquired winger, however, it’s clear that’s not the case.
“When I talked to Phil last night, he said ‘I intend to earn every penny, and I won’t let you down,'” Toronto GM Brian Burke told the assembled media. “That’s how we feel about this young man.”
When asked if making the playoffs is a much more realistic goal for his team, Burke responded succinctly.
“We picked seventh this year,” he said. “We don’t intend to pick that high again.”
Kessel, who signed a five-year, $27 million contract Friday, said that he embraces the challenge of playing in a hockey hotbed.
“It’s the best hockey city in the world,” Kessel said of his new home. “The fans here are great. It’s a first-class organization. They just love hockey here in Toronto. The reason I chose Minnesota in college is because in Minnesota, they love hockey, it’s the number one sport. And here in Toronto, hockey’s it, and I want to be a part of that.”
The 21-year-old also said that he never demanded a trade from Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.
“I never one time asked to be traded,” he said. “I think it just became a mutual thing that it was best for both parties to move on. That’s basically what happened with that.”
Burke gave credit to Chiarelli for getting a difficult deal done.
“This is a trade that involved a lot of work and a lot of patience,” Burke said. “I want to thank Peter Chiarelli for his diligence. I think he got a very high price, as he should, for a player of this caliber.”
Kessel’s 36-goal campaign last season — which was accomplished despite missing time due to a case of mononucleosis — is being looked at by Burke as a springboard for a very successful career for Kessel.
“We think that the 36 goals from a year ago is really a platform not a peak, as far as what he can accomplish,” Burke said. “He’s gotten dramatically better each year, he’s dealt with some personal adversity. I’ve watched his personal maturation and growth as a young man, from a real shy kid who was drafted to a guy who is much more outgoing and much more comfortable as a professional athlete, in my view.”
Kessel said that his shoulder, which was surgically repaired after the playoffs ended, is “coming along pretty well,” and that he began skating and shooting pucks last week. He won’t be firing pucks in an NHL game for a while, but when he does, he’ll have the hopes of the Leafs franchise resting on both his shoulders.