There’s a lot of good reasons to keep Phil Kessel in Toronto – perhaps just as many as there are to trade him. Kessel is a 27-year old elite goal scorer; the kind of high end talent that doesn’t become available very often. Normally, it’d be silly to think of trading away such a player, but the Maple Leafs (if you haven’t heard) are about to embark on what will likely be a long and painful rebuild.
Kessel is not old, but he is in his prime. By the time Toronto comes out on the other side, he may not be the player he once was. On top of that, Kessel is the Leafs’ most valuable trade chip, and moving him now might accelerate the rebuild by years. That’s not an exaggeration.
The issue is, while pretty much any team would gladly employ Kessel, there aren’t many that can afford him. He’s got an $8M cap hit until 2022, which I’d argue is more than fair price, there aren’t many teams that A) have that kind of cap space and B) are looking to improve dramatically in the short term. Kessel is not a fit for a rebuilding team, but would be immensely valuable to a club that’s looking to take the next step or simply solidify themselves as a perennial Stanley Cup Contender.
So where should he end up? Here’s the five teams I’d be calling if I were looking to deal Phil Kessel…
The Nashville Predators
Stuck in a very tough Central Division along with St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota and Winnipeg, the Nashville Predators need to find a way to keep pace. They’re likely to continue running into the Blackhawks or Blues in the opening round of the playoffs for the foreseeable future, and a quick injection of high-end talent might be what’s needed to get them past their divisional rivals.
With a large number of pending free agents, Nashville has only has six forwards under contract next season and nearly $30M in cap space. They’ll shore up their roster quite a bit with many of their own restricted free agents, but they’ll have more than enough to comfortably add a player of Kessel’s value.
The good news for Toronto, if Nashville were to seriously pursue Kessel, is that the Predators have a number of excellent young roster players and prospects. The Leafs already own their 2015 first round pick (acquired in the Cody Franson/Mike Santorelli trade), but if they needed to, the Predators still have many other draft picks to move as well.
Ryan Ellis would be a good get, but his skillset might be a little redundant in Toronto with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner already in the mix. It would be a tough sell to get Nashville to part ways with 2014 first rounder and top prospect Kevin Fiala, but if he’s the main piece coming back to the Leafs, I suppose there’s a slight possibility it could happen.
Potential Trade Pieces: D Ryan Ellis, C Calle Jarnkrok, C Colton Sissons, LW Kevin Fiala, LW Jimmy Vesey, G Magnus Hellberg, G Juuse Saros, 2015 2nd Round Pick, 2016 1st Round Pick
Potential Salary Dumps: C Paul Gaustad (1 year, $3.25M)
The New York Islanders
My personal favourite Kessel destination. The Islanders are in a pretty good division, but let’s not pretend that the Metropolitan banner isn’t up for grabs every single year. This is a young and very talented team, and lining up a player like Kessel alongside John Tavares would be ridiculous. That, or leave Kyle Okposo on the top line and spread out the scoring with Kessel sheltered on the second line – either way, the Islanders would be super dangerous.
New York has about $14M in cap space, and while some of that will be eaten up by extensions for Okposo, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, they could easily afford to bring in Kessel if one or two of their roster players are coming back the other way. It might be a tight fit in 2015-16, but with a number of pending unrestricted free agents coming up next season, it’s certainly doable.
The Islanders also have one of the best groups of young players and prospects in the league, and can certainly afford to put together a nice package for Kessel and still not come close to emptying the cupboards. Parting with Michael Dal Colle or Griffin Reinhart might be a little too rich for the Islanders’ taste, but I’d press hard for a package that revolves around 21-year old Ryan Strome.
Potential Trade Pieces: C Ryan Strome, C Anders Lee, LW Michael Dal Colle, RW Sebastian Collberg, RW Josh Ho-Sang, D Griffin Reinhart, D Ryan Pulock, G Ilya Sorokin, 2016 1st Round Pick
Potential Salary Dumps: None. Their cap situation is beautiful.
The Florida Panthers
We already know that the Florida Panthers had shown some interest in acquiring Kessel not too long ago, but it might make a little more sense for them to put in a bid this offseason than it did back at the trade deadline.
Like all of the teams on this list, Florida has enough cap space (about $16M to be exact) to bring in Kessel’s contract. The Atlantic division is wide open most years, so Florida could certainly use Kessel’s help in climbing the standings. That being said, the Leafs are also in the Atlantic – do they really want to trade him to a division rival? I don’t think it’s a big deal, but it is something to be aware of.
Players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad are almost certainly untouchable, but the Panthers do have a number of other nice, young pieces that could come the other way. A lot of the Panthers’ best prospects have already graduated (see the first line of this paragraph), but a package of picks, a prospect like Mike Matheson or Ian McCoshen, and a decent roster player could do the trick. Florida’s certainly a good fit for Kessel, but I’m not sure that the Panthers could offer the best package for him.
Potential Trade Pieces: LW Jonathan Huberdeau, C Vincent Trocheck, D Dmitry Kulikov, C Rocco Grimaldi, D Mike Matheson, D Ian McCoshen, C Jayce Hawryluk, 2015 1st Round Pick, 2016 1st Round Pick
Potential Salary Dump: Dave Bolland (Kidding!)
The New Jersey Devils
Sending Kessel to New Jersey hinges on one thing and one thing only – the Devils’ sixth overall pick in the upcoming draft. I have no idea why New Jersey would want to part with that pick, considering they have what can only be described as an atrocious prospect pool, but apparently it’s available for a scoring winger. The Devils seem hellbent on keeping themselves afloat and competing the Metropolitan division, and don’t seem at all interested in rebuilding.
The most popular Toronto-New Jersey rumour has revolved around James van Riemsdyk, considering he was born and raised in the Garden State and everyone loves a good “coming home” narrative. If the Devils wanted to land the more talented Leafs scoring winger though, they’d certainly need to part with that sixth overall pick at the very least.
New Jersey has the cap space, with over $21M available and most of their core locked up. Money isn’t an issue. That being said, other than that high pick in the upcoming draft, the Devils don’t have all that much to offer in exchange for Kessel’s services.
Potential Trade Pieces: The sixth overall pick in 2015, D Eric Gelinas, D Damon Severson, LW Stefan Matteau, LW Reid Boucher, two 2015 2nd Round Picks, 2016 First Round Pick
Potential Salary Dumps: LW Ryan Clowe (3 years, $4.85M), LW Tuomo Ruutu (1 year, $3.8M)
The St. Louis Blues
This is a very similar situation to Nashville. The Central is a meat grinder, and the Blues’ first round playoff exit just a few weeks ago at the hands of the Wild demonstrated quite clearly just how tough it is for more than one team in the division to go far. With that said, the Blues can use all the help they can get.
They’re already a pretty strong offensive team, with David Backes, Alex Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny all capable of putting up significant points. Adding Kessel to the mix would give the Blues one of the strongest and most well balanced forward groups around, able to overwhelm pretty much any defence in the league.
With about $11M in cap space and only a few open roster spots, the Blues might need to shuffle a little but should be able to afford bringing in Kessel. They also have a really, really nice group of prospects (especially up front), and could give up one or two significant pieces without really feeling it. St. Louis is a “win now” organization, so they may be more inclined to mortgage off some young assets for an impact player like Kessel (who happens to be younger than most of the Blues’ core). The Leafs would be happy with a package revolving around pretty much anyone listed below, but you’d certainly want to press St. Louis hard for one of Ivan Barbashev or Robby Fabbri.
Potential Trade Pieces: LW Dmitrij Jaskin, C Ivan Barbashev, C Robby Fabbri, LW Ty Rattie, G Jordan Binnington, D Jordan Schmaltz, 2016 1st Round Draft Pick
Potential Salary Dumps: C Steve Ott (1 year, $2.6M)