Phil Kessel didn't want to negotiate a contract extension during the regular season, so the two sides worked hard to get it in just under the bell. Colleague Pierre LeBrun reports that Kessel's new deal with the Maple Leafs is a healthy one: Eight additional seasons at $8 million per season. But despite the risk that comes with any long-term deal, it's a manageable risk for Toronto. Here are five reasons why this contract works for the Maple Leafs:
1. It's fair market value. There are two common mistakes made when evaluating contracts in the cap era. One is comparing the contract of a potential unrestricted free agent to a deal signed by a restricted free agent. Yes, Kessel will be earning more than Steven Stamkos. No, it's not fair to compare the two. Furthermore, deals signed before term limitations were put in place under the new collective bargaining agreement shouldn't be compared, either. It's why Sidney Crosby's cap hit is $8.7 million and Evgeni Malkin's will be $9.5 million next season. Kessel's new deal should be compared to other fellow potential UFAs who signed in the new environment that caps deals at eight years. In this case, the best comparable player is Corey Perry, who signed an eight-year contract worth $69 million to stay in Anaheim. The going rate for a starting goalie right now is $6 million per season, and a star winger is $8 million. Franchise centers are now worth north of that, as the Chicago Blackhawks will find out when it comes time to extend Jonathan Toews.
2. He's still just 26 years old. The prime for an NHL forward is the youngest of any position, most likely in the 23-27 range, so it's possible that the Kessel we're seeing this season is as good as it gets. But this is a manageable risk by the Maple Leafs, who are signing a player who will still only be approaching his mid-30s when this deal expires. All long-term deals come with age-related risk, but it's considerably less than a deal such as the one Brad Richards got from New York or even Mike Ribeiro in Phoenix this past summer. And he doesn't come with the injury risk of a guy such as Nathan Horton, who got seven years from Columbus this offseason despite a concussion history and a current shoulder injury. After playing two consecutive 82-game seasons, Kessel played in all 48 games in 2013. He's durable.
3. He's building a strong postseason portfolio. Until last season, Kessel hadn't played in the playoffs since 2009 (with the Bruins), so there was question as to whether or not he could produce in the postseason, despite putting up 11 points in 11 games in that playoff run. He answered that this spring with a strong showing against a Bruins team who has historically contained Kessel. He had four goals in seven games, and now has 21 points in 22 career playoff games. The playoffs are built for strong, powerful wingers, but guys such as Kessel and Patrick Kane are proving there's always a spot for high-end skill on the wing in the postseason.
4. He can handle Toronto. One of the risks the Maple Leafs take when signing free agents is how the player will respond to playing in the biggest hockey market on the planet. That's not a question for Kessel. He doesn't seek the spotlight, and doesn't always appear comfortable when dealing with the media. But he's grown comfortable in Toronto, and has spent more offseason time in Ontario. And when he's comfortable, he opens up like we saw in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Olympic camp, when he sat and chatted with a group of reporters until every question was exhausted. If he wasn't comfortable with the Toronto market, he wouldn't have signed the extension.
5. It's harder to score in today's NHL. Scoring declined last season for the fourth consecutive time as the pendulum continues to swing in favor of defense. Everybody is expected to block shots now, from the stay-at-home defenseman to the star forward. The level of play in goal right now is also at an all-time high and even with the equipment adjustment, it's remarkably hard to score on your first shot like Kessel does so often. His great shot and ability to change a game in a moment's notice becomes even more valuable as it becomes harder for the rest of the league to do the same. If the Maple Leafs weren't willing to pay him $8 million per season, there would have been no shortage of interested general managers at the opening of free agency next summer.