Phil Kessel is torn and not just because the Maple Leafs cleaned out their lockers ahead of 16 playoff teams, to go their separate ways for another long summer.
The leading scorer on the team revealed he played with a torn abdominal muscle after April 3, which contributed to his going scoreless in four games at the end of the season and the last six overall, after getting 30 in his first 64.
With rest, Kessel should be 100% next season, but for another departee yesterday, it could’ve been the last time through the dressing room.
Tomas Kaberle, the only Leaf to survive Brian Burke’s purge of the old guard, seemed to put an extra squeeze into his handshakes as he departed the media interview area.
“We’ll find out in the summertime,” said Kaberle, whose no-trade clause re-opens for the summer after Toronto missed the playoffs a fifth straight season. “I’ll deal with whatever comes. I’ll do my best to be in my best shape. If it’s here, great, if not, I have to move on.”
Kaberle joined the injured Kessel in confessional, saying he tried to over-extend himself in the second half, straying from the offensive approach that made him one of the highest-scoring defencemen in team history.
From Jan. 12 onward, he added just 10 points when he had been leading the team with around 40.
“I was a little bit focusing on different parts of my game and maybe that wasn’t the way I should do it,” Kaberle admitted. “I should focus on why I am here and not on stuff I can’t control. If I can bring my game to another level for next year, hopefully I can be used here.”
Burke, who has not publicly shopped Kaberle, but could fetch a second-round pick if he did, will only say the 32-year-old should stick to his strengths.
“It’s a misconception that we want all our defenceman to be truculent,” Burke said. “We don’t pay him to be that. It’s just about making defensive zone coverage much better, being a little more physical.”
But Burke was quick to defend Kaberle’s team-worst minus-16 and the minus-13 of defenceman Francois Beauchemin.
“The plus-minus stat is like a lamp post to a drunk,” Burke opined, “supportive but not really illuminating. You look at Beauchemin and defencemen like him who play all the time against the other team’s best players and they’re rarely plus players. Sidney Crosby jumps over the boards and, boom, there goes Beauchemin with him.”
Free agents, both restricted and UFAs, were also crossing their fingers as they shuffled through exit meetings with Burke and coach Ron Wilson on Monday.
Actual dressing room access wasn’t granted, thus the unsigned Wayne Primeau, Rickard Wallin, Garnet Exelby, Jamie Lundmark and Mike Van Ryn couldn’t comment, while restricteds Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Christian Hanson were not approached.
But the biggest fish, goalie Jonas Gustavsson, might not remain an RFA for long.
Burke said talks between his right-hand man David Nonis and Gustavsson’s agent Joe Resnick on a multi-year deal have not only begun but have moved forward.
“They’ve had some discussions in the past 10 days or so and that’s where it sits,” he said, adding things look optimistic so far.
“I don’t want to wait until August, but it’s not causing me any stress,” Gustavsson said of the talks.
The 26-year-old reiterated that the chance to play right away in Toronto was a big reason he signed last year and that the acquisition of veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere didn’t discourage him.
Giguere believes they can be rivals and friends.
“I’m not stupid. I know there will be competition (for No. 1) next year,” Giguere said. “I’d like to remind everyone that I’m just 32.
“In Anaheim I had doubts and not having fun to come to the rink (when replaced by Jonas Hiller) and that made it hard to play with energy. You feel like you can play, but you’re not getting that chance.
“But here, I felt like when I played at 25, when I won the Cup. It was fun to come to the rink again.”
Too bad the Leafs won’t get that chance for another six months.