There’s certainly no absence of respect between Pittsburgh Penguins right-winger Phil Kessel and Ottawa Senators defenseman Dion Phaneuf, and a special sort of feeling surges through you when you realize these two will get to face off against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. Why? They spent six weird, miserable years on the same roster in Toronto and are now doing extremely well for themselves less than two short years later.
During the climax of the Maple Leafs’ rebuilding years in 2015-16, these two were arguably the most prominent players to be sent on different paths. On July 1, 2015, in a combination trade of a conditional second round pick plus Kessel, Tim Erixon, and Tyler Biggs, Toronto acquired Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, and Nick Spaling from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Maple Leafs also walked away from that deal with a 2016 conditional first and third round pick.
If you’ve forgotten, that’s the year young hot-shot Auston Matthews came to the city of Toronto, even though that pick from Pittsburgh was traded away and not used for him. Not a bad trade-off in retrospect, but at that moment, Toronto had just gotten rid of their best offensive player. Moreover, we all knew the relationship Kessel had with the Leafs organization — especially with the Toronto media. Here’s a fun refresher if you don’t:
Couple that with the bizarre hot dog story from Steve Simmons and Kessel being picked last in the 2011 NHL All-Star Draft, Phil had an incredibly interesting half-decade in the Canadian city. He led the team in scoring in all of his six years there, and provided them with 446 NHL games, 181 goals, 213 assists, and 394 points just on his own. What his tenure in Toronto demonstrated was six years of hockey simply wasted by a really, really good player.
His buddy Dion Phaneuf was shipped out just six months later in February of 2016, where he and four other guys (one of them Penn State superstar Casey Bailey) were exported to the Ottawa Senators without the option to retain their salaries. This is still a miraculous feat by Toronto, even though its management didn’t have the same luck with Kessel.
Fast forward six years. Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup Champion, and during that effort, he was reportedly in touch with Phaneuf throughout the entire Penguins’ playoff run. Not only are they still friends, Kessel has been very outspoken in support of his former teammate. In a famous, unplanned rant about the media scrutinizing Phaneuf as a captain, Phil reprimanded them in an interview, giving a slight jab at the Leafs’ higher ups in the process. “Is it [Phaneuf's] fault we're losing?" Kessel asked. "Did he build this team? No."
Now the two storied ex-teammates are opponents about to fight for an Eastern Conference Finals victory, the title of Champions of the East, and the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. Plus, there’s a solid chance they’ll see a lot of ice time against one another, as the Senators will probably match up Erik Karlsson’s defensive pairing with Sidney Crosby as much as possible. Depending on Head Coach Mike Sullivan’s plans for his forward lines, Phaneuf, and his line mate Cody Ceci, may see a lot of Kessel and Evgeni Malkin throughout the series.
It’s clear these two guys have done well for themselves since being tossed from Toronto to their respective new homes.
I’m sure they’ll be all smiles come puck drop tonight.