Leafs ready to roll dice, again

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

The mystery of Phil Kessel is not easily quantified.

For reasons that seem to belie any rich detail, the Boston Bruins want nothing to do with this 21-year-old speedster who scored 36 goals last season and has 15 points in 15 Stanley Cup playoff games.

That by itself is out of the ordinary -- and so are the circumstanecs surrounding the unsigned restricted free agent. Within the next 10 days, it is all but certain that Kessel will be traded to another NHL team -- and quite likely that team will be the Maple Leafs. He will be traded because the Bruins couldn't fit him under their salary cap but that's only the monetary part of this equation. The fill in the blank part is not so clear.

Depending on who you ask -- and no one would go on the record on this one -- Kessel is a) immature; b) the most disliked player on the Bruins, even by training staff; c) painfully shy; d) a square peg who couldn't fit into a round hole; e) a single engine in a sport where team means everything.

That is the gamble for Brian Burke and the Leafs.

Kessel's talent is intriguing and inviting. The Leafs don't have a single forward with anything close to his skill level. And his speed is crazy. That's why Burke has offered up a first-round pick and a boat load of other options to try to win the Kessel Derby.

It is an expensive gamble for Burke, who knows Kessel a little from the Team USA orientation camp, but it is a gamble he is willing to take as he attempts to speed up the Leafs' rebuilding process.

The question is: Is the gamble worth taking?

A scout wondered last night why it is always the Leafs who seem to be rolling the dice. They tried this with Owen Nolan, who was expensive to acquire and about as popular on the Leafs as early morning practices. They tried it with Jason Blake, who went from a college team to several pro teams with the same knock against him.

General managers always seem to think they can turn someone else's problem into their own gem. That's why Todd Bertuzzi keeps getting work. That's why at least four teams -- Nashville, the Rangers and Minnesota are the other suitors -- have been kicking the tires on Kessel.

The fascination with Kessel is, he's just a kid. He won't turn 22 until next month. He scored 11 goals in his first NHL season, 19 in his second, 36 in his third. He's just starting to define the kind of player he is capable of becoming.

Those who know him best will tell you that the growth in him as a person, from his first NHL season to his third has been immense. That he is growing up. That he is maturing.

Some will tell you that; some dispute that.

Some won't believe he'll ever be comfortable in his own skin, which by itself raises the issue of how will he handle the boondoggle that is Toronto hockey. You can't hide in Toronto. Some players love that. Some get eaten up by it.

When I spoke to Kessel at the USA Olympic camp, he did seem more grown up. He did make eye contact. He didn't look at his shoes the way he had in previous conversations.

He will be traded before his Oct. 2 birthday because the Bruins must be under the salary cap by the start of the season. They may even do better in a trade than they would have had someone signed an offer sheet for Kessel.

Kessel will be paid somewhere above $4.5 million US a year, which would entitle the Bruins to a first-, second- and third-round draft pick. The Leafs will pay that much for him, probably more.

And then the analysis will begin in earnest.

STEVE.SIMMONS@SUNMEDIA.CA


Photos