The Toronto Maple Leafs did an odd thing during the 2015 offseason - they traded by far their best player in Phil Kessel. Now, trading top talent in the NHL happens from time to time, and as the cliche goes if Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be traded, but the circumstances surrounding this deal are what make it bizarre. Kessel had a limited no trade clause in his contract, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were the only one of the 8 teams he'd allow a trade to that were showing any interest. Even then, Jim Rutherford and company weren't offering much. If the draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton set the bar for what Phil Kessel could bring back in return, the Maple Leafs' return was the bar you trip over stumbling into a big mistake.
It was that low of a return for the star winger, and it spoke to how desperately the team wanted Kessel out of Toronto. The centerpiece of the trade, Kasperi Kapanen, is a player that Toronto hopes can develop into a competent top 6 winger in the NHL one day - certainly not the type of elite prospect that might be expected when trading away a player of Kessel's caliber. Pittsburgh's 2016 1st round pick is the next most intriguing piece of the deal, and it'll be no higher than 27th overall and has the potential to drop further from there. The team has already offloaded Nick Spaling, thrown in as a salary dump, and Scott Harrington appears to have a ceiling of a 6th/7th defenseman in the NHL, if he ever gets to that point at all.
Throw in the fact that Toronto was willing to eat $1.2 million of Kessel's salary over the next 7 seasons and it couldn't be any more clear that the Maple Leafs were desperate to move him regardless of the return. They couldn't give away a then 28-year-old winger who had a down year of 25 goals and 36 assists with little in the way of talented pieces around him. One of the better goal scorers in the league who had twice hit 37 goals over the course of his career while not missing a game in over 5 seasons. This was the Brendan Shanahan and company deemed would poison their team if kept on the roster, the bad influence that they had to sell low without a trade market because not having Phil Kessel was more valuable to them than having Phil Kessel. He was a Maple Leafs' castoff, which pours a little extra salt in the wound, and couldn't help a team win a championship.
Only, Phil Kessel was miscast as a castoff. After struggling early in the season under Mike Johnston, along with virtually every other offensive player on the team, Phil Kessel began to turn it around under Mike Sullivan, scoring 15 goals and adding 23 assists once the calendar flipped to 2016, a 69 point pace over the course of 82 games. He did the bulk of the damage at even strength too, averaging 2.40 pts/60 over that time frame - an elite number that rivals some of the best seasons of his career. That number would have placed him in the top 10 in the league in 2015-16, as would the 1.20 g/60 average he posted in 2016. As it stands, Kessel placed 55th in pts/60 and 30th in goals/60 at even strength - both well within the realm of a top line player in their own right.
And what Toronto couldn't possibly have known is that Phil Kessel shines the brightest on the biggest of stages even though he scored 4 goals with 2 assists during the only 7 playoff games the Maple Leafs could manage during his time there. Kessel has been dominant in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, registering 14 points (6g, 8a) to lead the Penguins 13 games - production that raises him to a point per game during his playoff career (35 points in 35 games). All of this while playing on a line centered by Nick Bonino - not the scoring boost everyone assumed he get from playing with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Perhaps the Maple Leafs should have known Kessel had this in him - he was named the Best Forward at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, afterall.
For a player cast aside as not being a part of the winning formula, Phil Kessel certainly has been contributing at a high level for his new team - one that paid pennies on the dollar to obtain him. The Pittsburgh Penguins stand 7 wins away from being able to call themselves Stanley Cup Champions once again, and Kessel has been an integral part of this playoff run. The Pens wouldn't be where they are right now if he wasn't helping to carry the scoring load as Crosby and Malkin have seen their production run dry, and as of this moment he's the team's top candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Pretty good for a guy who 10 months ago needed to be dealt at any cost.