Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Watching Kessel’s Prime Years Fade Away…

Time is a funny thing. Maybe funny is the wrong word – you don’t laugh out loud at time. A better word may be peculiar. Time is peculiar. You spend your entire life being young, then one day you wake up to realize that, well, you aren’t young anymore.

I’m scared this is going to happen to Phil Kessel.

It’s not his fault; it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fault. No, they aren’t the reason he is getting older (we have nature to blame for that), but they are the ones squandering away what remains of his prime years. Sure, 26 doesn’t feel THAT old, but maybe it is. He turns 27 in early October and we know from existing research that players tend to peak in their mid-to-late twenties, with significant declines taking place from 29 onward. Kessel is just over two years away from 29.

Will he fall off of a metaphorical cliff at 29? No. It will, however, be reasonable to assume that his best years will be in the rearview mirror. There will always be exceptions to the well-established rules of aging, guys like Rob Brind'Amour who set up a cot in their gym and stay healthy and productive into their late thirties. For the most part, though, team’s need to prepare for their stars to decline post 30. Toronto seems to be taking the opposite approach, building their core towards a possible crescendo just as Kessel’s numbers start to dip.

I don’t mean to sound overly pessimistic, there are positives on this team. A core of Kadri, Nylander, JVR, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Rielly and Bernier sounds awfully nice, and it is. The issue is that half of those players are still two or three years away from being quality NHLers. Reinforcements are on the way, they just might not be coming fast enough.

Phaneuf is in a similar situation to Kessel, with his decline likely more imminent (if it hasn’t started to some degree already). He’ll be 32 or 33 years old when the team is (theoretically) in a position to compete. If he continues to skate 24 minutes a night against some of the toughest competition in the league then you have to wonder what will be left in 2017, 2018, and beyond.

There’s also the issue of unintended consequences. Signing Phil and Dion to long-term deals was essentially the only solution for Toronto a year ago. They were, and are, the team’s best forward and defenseman – they needed to stay. However, by the time this group is thinking about contention there is a real possibility that Kessel, and to a greater extent Phaneuf, are not worth their cap dollars. This could hamper the team when they actually have a reasonable chance of winning (there is an obvious irony in all of this).

Of course if the salary cap continues to rise and approaches $80 or $90 million in the near future maybe this all becomes moot. But it’s still a risk worth noting.

In an ideal world Toronto would be in a position to make the playoffs in the here and now. That was the idea behind adding players like Clarkson, Bolland, and Bernier a summer ago – improve significantly in the near-term and worry about the long-term, well, later. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked. Clarkson looks more and more like a DiPietro-esque anvil to the cap, Bolland left via an overpayment from Florida in free agency, and the jury is still out on Bernier as a cornerstone backstop.

Drafting Nylander was a step in a much needed direction. This is a prospect system devoid of high end offensive weapons, something Nylander will address in a major way. If Toronto finishes in the lottery again next season they’ll add another strong prospect that could be part of the emerging next generation.

All of this leads to the bitter-sweet juxtaposition Dave Nonis finds himself in. He needs to win soon in order to capitalize on Kessel’s run as one of the game’s five or ten best scorers. But his roster is full of talented youngsters who might be manning All-Star games in 2018. There isn’t an obvious answer to this conundrum outside of “win now” and then “win later”, too. That’s a lot easier said than done.

A lot can, and will, change over the coming two or three seasons. For the Leafs’ sake, I hope Kessel’s on-ice production isn’t one of them.

Darren Kennedy writes about hockey in a few places: BCP, Mckeen’s, and Dobber Hockey. You can follow him on twitter @fantasyhockeydk