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NHL trade verdicts best left to history

Phil Kessel and the Maple Leafs are off to a hot start, but will it continue? (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Phil Kessel and the Maple Leafs are off to a hot start, but will it continue? (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

Last year, a former NHLer and alumnus of the Toronto Maple Leafs called me to talk about Phil Kessel, who at the time was stumbling through a scoreless streak and, as usual to that point in his career, was an absolute non-factor in terms of backchecking and defense.

Kessel “plays a coast-to-coast game,” the ex-player said. “He coasts to one spot, then to the next.”

We both had a good laugh. Then I tweeted the line and many more people had a chuckle or two. And everybody who assailed Leafs GM Brian Burke’s decision to acquire Kessel from Boston at the high cost of two first round draft picks (who turned out to be Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton) and a second-rounder (Jared Knight) had one more nugget of information with which to underscore their worst fears. A couple months after that, more people inside and outside the league laughed at Kessel’s expense when he was the last to be chosen at the All-Star Game.

Less than a year later, jokes about Kessel are in extremely short supply. To the young right winger’s credit, he has made immense strides in his defensive play – his plus-seven rating is second-best in the NHL – but as evidenced by his league-leading seven goals and 12 points in Toronto’s first five games, he’s more of a threat in all regards.

But is Kessel’s apparent breakthrough enough to declare the Leafs winners of the deal? I don’t think so. If anything, it should tell hockey observers we won’t be able to accurately judge the winner of this for many years to come. After all, if Kessel – still only 24 years old – has room to grow his game, who’s to know for certain what Seguin, Hamilton or Knight will evolve into? What if this is just a momentary blip of otherworldly play from the notoriously streaky Kessel? The truth is, we won’t know for sure for a long time.

Ditto for the Avalanche’s controversial off-season deal that sent Colorado’s 2012 first round draft pick (and conditional second-rounder) to Washington for the Capitals’ former starting goalie Semyon Varlamov. Don’t get me wrong, my eyebrows were raised as high as anyone’s when the trade was announced. The possibility existed (and still exists) that the swap could blow up in the face of Avs GM Greg Sherman and provide the Caps with a very high first-rounder.

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But with the manner in which the Avalanche began the season (winning five of their first six games), suddenly that trade doesn’t seem nearly so fraught with peril for Sherman & Co. Varlamov has a sterling .938 save percentage, 2.17 goals-against average and one shutout since joining the organization. But again, that doesn’t mean he or the team will continue their current, spectacular streak, nor that the Capitals will draft a player who eventually will contribute more to the team than Varlamov ever did. We won’t know – we can’t know – until the story fully plays out.

Similar debates are happening around the league with every significant transaction. The Flyers just hosted former captain Mike Richards, the centerpiece of a swap with the Kings, and there was no shortage of discussion as to who came out with the better end of the deal. Sharks fans will be checking the boxscores of Wild games (and vice-versa) to try and decipher who won the Dany Heatley/Martin Havlat and Devin Setoguchi/Brent Burns trades for a good long while. And anybody who says with sneering authority that one team definitely hoodwinked the other in any of those moves is talking out of their, uh, lower-body area.

It’s understandable why we stampede to judgment so quickly in our gimme-gimme-gimme, now-now-now modern world. It’s fun and easy to bungee-jump to conclusions. But final, without-a-doubt verdicts can’t be microwaved in minutes to a hot, delicious, easily digestible form.

We all know a good turkey takes hours to cook. And a turkey of a trade takes much longer to label accurately.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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