Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Can a Team Win with Kessel and Phaneuf?

With the Leafs mired in another death spiral, the core is coming under increased scrutiny. The major question in Toronto is whether you can win with Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

It's certainly possible. And you have to look no further than the team who has won two of the last five Stanley Cups.

Kessel and Phaneuf don't play for Chicago, of course, but two very similar players do: Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook. Both Kessel and Kane are offense-first wingers who can put up major points, but aren't really strong in any other aspect of the game. Phaneuf and Seabrook are both physical defenceman who are decent skaters and can put up around 40 points a year.

The difference, ultimately, is that Kessel and Phaneuf are largely surrounded by mediocrity, meaning they are the de facto alpha dogs in Toronto, whereas in Chicago Kane and Seabrook have Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Sharp as teammates, amongst plenty of other players who trump Toronto's depth easily. The next best forward on Toronto, James van Riemsdyk, would probably be the fifth best forward on Chicago. The next best defenceman on Toronto, Cody Franson (who in fairness might be better than Phaneuf), would probably be the fifth best defenceman on Chicago.

Swap Kessel and Phaneuf for Kane and Seabrook and the narrative following each player changes. As complementary parts on Chicago the Leafs duo would be key cogs to a perennial contender. Kessel's defensive deficiencies would be masked by a Selke-quality player like Toews and a bevy of two-way beasts, and his goal-scoring would be all that mattered. He would be insulated. Phaneuf, likewise, could pair with a superior defender in Keith, and have easier competition as players like Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson take the tougher defensive matchups.

In Toronto, Kane and Seabrook would do no better at turning the Leafs' fortunes around. Kane now becomes the lazy one-way player and Seabrook the overmatched defenceman. But because winning is all that really matters, their weaknesses are secondary. When there's plenty of talent on a team all that matters is what a player can do, not what they can't.

In Toronto all the talk is around how you can't build around Kessel and Phaneuf. And in a sense that's true if they are best as complementary parts. But it doesn't mean you don't need players like them. It means you need more players who are talented, and dealing two of your talented players doesn't really help in the talent department. It's not Kessel's fault that the Leafs were never able to acquire a player better than him.

On a contending team it's certainly possible to win with both Kessel and Phaneuf. The more pressing question, however, is whether the Leafs can win with Kessel and Phaneuf.

At this point it's unlikely.

When you look at the roster surrounding Toronto's two key figures, the team is missing a top-line centre, a top-pairing defenceman (or maybe two), another top-4 defenceman, and at least one or two top-six forwards. That's a bare minimum for realistic contention.

Some of those holes are easier to fill than others. Some of those holes are only filled by drafting and developing properly, something the Leafs haven't done well for decades.

Unless Morgan Rielly dramatically improves into a top-pairing guy soon and the Leafs are able to swing a deal for Ryan O'Reilly, only costing them, say, Tyler Bozak and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs don't look like they will be able to fill the most important of those holes within the next two seasons. Anyone who they might draft likely isn't going to make an immediate impact because they aren't in a position to draft high enough. Even drafting first overall is no sure bet for someone who can make an immediate impact as an 18-year-old.

So if they Leafs build incrementally through the draft, add in a few savvy trades and quality veteran signings, you're looking at three to five years down the road for a time to contend, at which time both Kessel and Phaneuf will be in the decline stage of their career. And imagining Kessel aging like Dany Heatley, another well-documented fitness slouch, doesn't seem too unrealistic.

That doesn't mean dump Kessel and Phaneuf on the first team to pick up the phone, but it means taking a look around the league and determining if the futures they might get for both players is a better bet to form a future contending team with the young players on the roster now.

Kessel and Phaneuf can be a part of a winning team. But as the losses mount it's unlikely they ever will in Toronto.

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