MONTREAL – The meeting between Leafs general manager Dave Nonis and Phil Kessel last week had little to do with contract negotiations. Instead, Nonis and Kessel were sorting through the fallout of a wild melee with the Buffalo Sabres, one that saw Kessel suspended for the duration of the pre-season.
"He brought up to me how important it was to stay," Nonis said on Tuesday afternoon of the conversation with Kessel. "And that's when we started negotiations. There weren't negotiations early in camp. I wanted to hear from him and I wanted him to tell me that he wanted to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. And once he did, we worked quickly and were able to reach an agreement."
Kessel, who will turn 26 on Wednesday, and the Leafs agreed to an eight-year deal that will pay the winger $8 million per season, keeping him in Toronto until beyond his 34th birthday.
"I've always wanted to be here," said Kessel, who expressed no interest in negotiating an extension during the season, the deadline thus ticking in recent hours. "It's a place I wanted to play, want to finish my career here. It's a great city. The organization is unbelievable and I'm real excited to continue here."
Only two players in the NHL have finished top-10 in league scoring in each of the past two seasons: Lightning star Steven Stamkos and Kessel. It's that level of production, not easily replaced in today's NHL, which enticed the Leafs to lock him up as a cornerstone for the long-term, longer in fact than any player on the roster.
"If you want to retain an elite player, you're going to probably have to give them fairly lengthy term," Nonis insisted, the David Clarkson seven-year deal this past summer another example of such requirements. "What you want to make sure of or be as comfortable as you can be that that player is going to be able to perform at a high level for most, if not all of it. And again, Phil being 26-years-old, I'm pretty comfortable that we've got, hopefully, the best eight years of his career."
Though he enters his eighth NHL season, Kessel remains relatively young and has demonstrated in recent years an ability to grow – both on and off the ice – and further mold an overall game that had been previously lacking. Maybe most striking, however, and most prominent in the playoffs last spring was the intensity he presented against the Bruins, a handful opposite Chara and company with four goals and six points in the seven-game series.
"It's not like he hadn't done anything prior to that series, but his desire to win and to compete and do things that don't come natural to him, I think that opened a lot of people's eyes," Nonis said. "One thing with that is he has to continue doing that and he knows it."
"I think maybe some people don't think he has a ton of compete in him, but we in the room know he does," said Tyler Bozak, who remained a Leaf this past summer with a five-year deal. "He puts up those points every single year for a reason."
Kessel had scored 30 goals for four consecutive seasons before tallying 20 in the shortened 48-game schedule last year. Only three players have found twine more in the past three seasons, an impressive trio that includes Corey Perry, Alex Ovechkin and Stamkos. Whether that line of production continues to ascend though will be up to the player, according to Nonis.
"It's going to be where he wants it to go," Nonis stated. "If he wants to continue that compete that he showed in the postseason... if he wants to continue to work on his conditioning and his strength and his playmaking and all those things that have improved over the last three or four years, Phil should continue to improve. We shouldn't see a flat-line, he should keep getting better."
Dion Phaneuf is the next contract for Nonis and his management team to work on, the Leafs captain unsigned beyond this season. Ahead in the summer of 2014 looms a daunting list that includes Jake Gardiner (RFA), James Reimer (RFA), Cody Franson (RFA), Mark Fraser (RFA), Mason Raymond (UFA), Paul Ranger (UFA), Nik Kulemin (UFA) and Dave Bolland (UFA).
With Kessel now securely in the fold though, the Leafs do have a core group of forwards locked up long-term, with Clarkson, Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, and James van Riemsdyk all signed until at least the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season.