No Tavares, but give Kessel his due

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:11 PM ET

The moment native son John Tavares stepped onto the Air Canada Centre ice surface for the pre-game warmup Monday night, the estimated 100 family and friends in attendance erupted in a collective cheer.

As for the other several thousand patrons who had made their way to the rink early, they could only dream of what No. 91 would have looked like in Maple Leafs blue-and-white.

Its going to be that type of week for Maple Leaf fans, who will have the images of what might have been thrust right in front of their faces.

Monday they were forced to watch Tavares, the pride of Oakville and a longtime Leaf fan himself, take his place on the visitors bench.

If only the Leafs had tanked in the final two months last season, maybe Brian Burke would have ended up with the No. 1 pick at the 2009 June entry draft without having to try to trade for it.

Wednesday night, in Tampa, the Leafs will find themselves lining up against Markhams Steven Stamkos, the 19-year-old phenom whose lifetime dream was to become a Leaf. With his father being close friends with Leaf broadcaster Joe Bowen, young Steven could have been a Leaf had the team gone into a late season slide in 2008 and been in a position to have the first overall pick.

Once again, the Leafs won too much down the stretch for that to happen.

To this day, the public whining over the lost opportunities to land Stamkos and Tavares remains strong and vocal, judging by the emails that continue to flow in to Sun Media.

Get over it, people.

Its time to leave the past in the past.

Besides, the Leafs have a young offensive stud of their own in Phil Kessel.

Yes, Burke may rue the day that he shipped two firsts and one second-round pick to the Boston Bruins to acquire Kessel, especially since his free falling team is setting the table for Bs GM Peter Chiarelli to end up with the top overall pick in 2010.

Certainly there is reason to fret.

Relinquishing the opportunity to land highly-regarded junior prospects Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin will sting, especially if the Bruins take either one.

But lost in all this paranoia over the heavy price paid by Burke to land Kessel - a legit concern - is the remarkable on-ice performance of this offensively-gifted 22-year-old.

Kessel scored the Leafs first goal against the New York Islanders last night, giving him six goals in 10 games. Translate that over a full 82-game season and that puts him in the 50-goal range, a neighbourhood not been visited by a Leaf since Dave Andreychuk potted 53 in 1993-94.

Unlike Andreychuk, Kessel does not have a Doug Gilmour setting him up. No offence to Matt Stajan or John Mitchell, but the numbers dont lie.

Critics suggest that Kessel is not a true franchise player in that he allegedly does not necessarily make those around him better. If thats so, answer this: Who on the current Maple Leaf roster makes Phil Kessel better?

Remember, too, that Kessel did not play hockey for six months after undergoing shoulder surgery. Imagine the numbers hed be putting up if he was in mid-season form right now.

At one time, Kessel was predicted to be the top pick in the 2006 entry draft. He fell out of favour in the final few months and ended up going fifth overall to the Bruins.

So complain, if you will, that Burke surrendered far too much for Kessel. Or that the Leafs should have tanked to get a shot at Stamkos and Tavares.

At the same time, acknowledge that Kessel is playing like a No. 1 draft pick.


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