By inducing Phil Kessel to sign an eight-year contract extension for a widely reported sum of $64 million, Dave Nonis has put his most significant stamp on the Maple Leafs.
Nonis has been busy. He lured free agent David Clarkson and traded for goalie Jonathan Bernier and super-pest Dave Bolland.
But in each of those circumstances, Nonis had circumstance in his favor.
Clarkson, a Toronto native, loved the team since childhood and likely rejected a bit more money to be a Leaf.
The LA Kings knew they could no longer keep Bernier on the bench. Bolland’s departure was prompted by Chicago’s salary cap issues.
You can, and should, credit Nonis with exploiting those factors to get the players he wanted. With Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson in the fold, he has gotten the players he wanted and established himself as a heavyweight deal-closer.
But Kessel is a different animal. Because of his age, he turns 26 tomorrow, jaw-dropping skill and history of offensive production (pro-rate last year and you have seasons of an average of 33 goals over four Leaf seasons) Kessel was poised to set a new salary bar for unrestricted free agents.
Kessel’s durability can’t be questioned. While he missed time with a shoulder injury before he played for the Leafs, Kessel hasn’t missed a game due to injury since Brian Burke traded for him.
In some ways, Kessel’s signing comes as a surprise.
He does not seem to particularly enjoy the media attention or the sometimes suffocating attention that comes with this market.
But when speaking of the deal, Kessel pointed to those elements as a positive.
“This is the place I wanted to play,” he said. “It’s a great city. I want to finish my career here.”
Kessel, naturally enough, said landing the contract was a relief.
“I want to focus on the game and try to go as far as we can as a team,” he said. “We have a great group of guys. I love each and every one of them.”
Kessel passed on the opportunity to hand-pick his coach. He knows Randy Carlyle will demand the 200-foot game Kessel provided in last year’s post-season.
He knows he will be considered a waste of potential should he fail to turn in 40, not 30 goal seasons.
When given the option of fleeing a hockey market and slipping into obscurity after every night of work, Kessel chose the hotbox instead.
That decision, as much as anything he has done on the ice, speaks to what lies inside Kessel who is as laconic off the ice as he is electrifying on it.
He sees championship potential in Toronto and clearly, he wants that challenge. Toss out Montreal and you have 28 other NHL cities that would seem a better fit for his retiring nature.
Clearly, Kessel feels comfortable in the Leafs dressing room and Nonis stressed that the feeling is likewise.
“He’s a great teammate. He’s well liked by everyone in our room,” Nonis said. “We wouldn’t have looked to extend Phil if we didn’t think he was a great fit in Toronto.”
While acknowledging Kessel as one of the league’s premier offensive talents, Nonis agreed that Kessel’s showing in the playoff showed a maturing player.
“If he wants to continue working on his compete, his conditioning and his strength and his playmaking, Phil should continue to improve,” he said.
The only people who should be disappointed with Kessel’s decision are members of the community of sportswriters, analysts and pundits. They have been denied a season of speculation on Kessel’s intentions and now find themselves saddled with one of the league’s quietest players.
Leaf fans will settle for one of the most arresting talents in the NHL.