Phil Kessel (81) reacts after scoring, April 12, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Kathy Willens)
TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs finally got Phil Kessel, but at a high cost.
The Leafs acquired the rights to Kessel after months of talks with the Boston Bruins and then signed him to a US$27-million, five-year deal Friday. Toronto general manager Brian Burke is betting the farm that Kessel will be a big part of his vision for the Leafs. In return for the rights to negotiate with the restricted free agent, Toronto sent a first and second round pick in the 2010 NHL draft to Boston, along with another first-round pick in 2011.
Kessel scored 36 goals and added 24 assists in 70 games with Boston last season.
"Bringing Phil Kessel aboard, it's a statement to our players that we intend to be competitive right away, and I think he gives us a dimension that we need," said Burke.
"(Kessel) told me he's walking on air. This is a free agent that could have signed with other teams, he wanted to sign with us, and I think it's an important pick up for us."
The 21-year-old forward, who's entry-level deal expired after last season, failed to negotiate an contract extension in the off-season with the Bruins, who are right up against the $56.8-million salary cap.
Boston picked Kessel fifth overall in the 2006 draft. Kessel had shoulder surgery over the summer and won't be ready to play until at least November.
The move represents Burke's first serious play at ending the Leaf's four-season playoff drought. Toronto's GM had been mostly content to stock up on draft picks and defenceman in the off-season with little done to bolster the Leafs' thin offence.
While giving up three high picks was a big price to pay for Kessel's negotiating rights, the Leafs also have several promising rookies in Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, Nazem Kadri and Christian Hanson, all of whom have scored during in the team's first two pre-season games.
"It's a very high price but it's one we feel makes sense for us and I think what's made it possible to expend those picks is two focuses: one is that he's a young player, he's not even 22 yet," Burke said.
"And second, we think with some of the players we acquired without giving up picks like Tyler Bozak, (left-wing Robert) Slaney, Hanson, (goaltender Jonas) Gustavsson, these are players that were they available on the draft would command a high price like that.
"So we feel by stocking the cupboard we can take some of the cans off the shelf for the future."
The deal was complicated by Burke's distaste for offer sheets. He previously had a long dispute with then-Oilers' GM Kevin Lowe over an offer sheet made to Ducks' RFA Dustin Penner. Burke declined to match and Penner signed with Edmonton.
Earlier this month, Burke said he had not contemplated an offer sheet for Kessel and preferred to negotiate with Bruins' GM Peter Chiarelli.
Burke, who nearly had a deal in place with Boston for Kessel at the draft, didn't give up his pursuit of the talented forward. His job was made easier last week when Kessel broke off talks with the Bruins.
"It's taken a long time, it's taken a lot of effort, but I think it's worth it," Burke said.