1. Re: The title
It’s important to start off by saying that a scenario in which both Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are not wearing Maple Leaf blue on the first day of the season is not particularly likely. These are big contracts, and while there are plenty of teams that would certainly like to have these players (though perhaps not so much at this price point), the number that both can afford them and would would to actually give up significant assets for them has to be small.
We know now what the salary cap is going to be for next season ($71.4 million), and that should facilitate a lot of trades in the next week-plus as desperate teams scramble to clear space ahead of July. Toronto’s not really in a desperate cap situation, of course, but they’d like to be rid of these deals so they can get a little worse, finagle a higher pick for themselves, and hopefully rope in a few more picks or young players in the process.
And the good news is that Toronto, being richer than most of the lower-level markets in the league combined, will probably also be more than happy to take some bad, short-term contracts back just to help you out. That’s the kind of guys they are.
So, again, while I don’t think the following scenario is very likely at all, I think it would be wise to talk reasonably about the various situations that would arise as a result of Toronto clearing two of the biggest contracts in the league from its ledgers.
2. The return
The first thing you talk about when you say “Kessel and Phaneuf traded” are what’s coming back the other way. The fact that Kessel has a no-trade clause precludes a lot of teams that otherwise might be decent suitors, and the rumor is that Pittsburgh is interested. Phaneuf has been rumored to be going to any number of teams who need defensive help and have cap space, but this ignores that Phaneuf has a less restrictive no-trade, but a no-trade nonetheless.
But let’s get one thing straight right off the bat here: These players have big cap hits, and the Leafs are not likely to retain a cent of it. There go the Kessel-to-Pittsburgh rumors, unless the Pens can get the Leafs to take on multiple bad contracts (and fortunately, the Jim Rutherford has plenty to give away).
The thing is, you have to assume that the returns for these two players would, in theory, be similar. A veteran on a bad deal, a good prospect or young proven NHL, and a first-round pick. They need to be going to a team with cap room, the aspirations to be competitive next season or very soon thereafter, the resources to meet the Leafs’ asking price, and a willingness to spend. How many of those are out there? Not a lot.
You can go down the standings last year and find these answers (there’s an asterisk next to teams on Kessel’s trade list):
New York*: They’ve got their own problems
Montreal*: Not gonna happen
St. Louis: Nah
Tampa: No interest
Nashville: Do they really want more than one person making Shea Weber money?
Vancouver: Probably not
Washington: Maybe, but probably not; they seem more interested in Patrick Sharp for some reason
Long Island: Who knows? They’re potentially trying to trade Okposo
Minnesota*: They have to be able to pay Dubnyk
Detroit: Already passed on Phaneuf
Ottawa: Won’t spend the money
Winnipeg: Like Kessel or Phaneuf would waive NTCs to go to Winnipeg
Pittsburgh*: Would need a lot coming back
Calgary: Don’t seem to eager to take on salary given who’s coming up for new deals soon
Boston*: They’re already letting guys walk because they have no room
Los Angeles*: Same
Dallas: Phaneuf would help them
Colorado: This could be an ideal destination for Phaneuf as far as the Leafs are concerned
San Jose: Possible; lots of room, might be willing to deal picks to win now, decent prospect pool
Columbus: Might be able to use Phaneuf but they were so desperate to stay on-budget rather than cap-compliant last year they took David Clarkson
Philadelphia*: What cap room?
New Jersey: Nowhere close to competing, don’t want to get older
Carolina: Nowhere close to competing, don’t want to take on money
Edmonton: No interest, gotta pay the future stars
Arizona: The definition of a budget team
Buffalo: No interest, tanking
Like I said, very few options. But if both of them end up gone, it’s obviously to two separate teams, meaning the Leafs likely get a haul for these two guys, plus a few contracts for overage, overpriced vets they don’t care about paying for another year or two. Whatever makes them worse for the time being will be fine.
3. In-house options
But you have to replace these two guys, and that leads one to wonder: If Kessel goes does, say, William Nylander gets his shot with the big club after ripping up the AHL and Swedish leagues last season? And if Phaneuf goes, does Morgan Rielly get a bump-up in responsibility?
Obviously the Leafs aren’t going to be super-concerned with winning a whole lot of games in 2015-16, so basically all you’re doing is seeing if the kids can sink or swim. We have a lot of evidence to indicate that they’d be able to in the right circumstances, and you’d obviously trust a coach like Mike Babcock to find the right circumstances with relative ease.
The hole left by a Kessel trade would be harder to fill than the Phaneuf-shaped hole in the blue line (not to denigrate Phaneuf but he’s a decent No. 2 defenseman getting elite No. 1 money; No. 2 D aren’t nearly as hard to find as high-level snipers like Kessel), and a rookie isn’t going to be able to do that.
So the Leafs are going to probably attempt to replace Kessel’s production by committee, while everyone on the defense just basically gets bumped up a slot. Now, we also have to keep in mind that the team would probably also have to squeeze the veterans coming back in those deals onto the rosters, and a focus on a useful position (i.e. the Leafs don’t need more overpaid veteran centers) could help fill this gap as well.
4. The UFA market
Then there’s the market for free agents that’s going to open up on July 1. It’s well-known at this point that the high-level free agent crop this year is, in fact, quite poor. If Matt Beleskey is turning down $16 million over four years because he thinks there’s a better offer out there, well, the hockey world has gone insane.
But the Leafs are not run by idiots — any more — and they’re not going to be pursuing the sought-after UFAs some other teams might. They will, as they did last summer, more likely bide their time, identify decent players who aren’t going to cost a lot, and sign them to fill some holes in the lineup (and oh yes, there will be holes).
This is a perfectly good and smart thing to do, but at issue here is whether other teams have wised up and would try to drive up the asking price on possession-y players who don’t produce a ton. If so, the competition would likely be a little more cutthroat than it was before, but it still shouldn’t be too hard to navigate.
The Leafs have holes in the bottom of the roster, as most teams do. There are plenty of ways to address them without breaking the bank. Not that cap space would be an issue if they can clear out $5 million or so through these trades.
5. Prepare for the worst
If I were to place a bet on this whole thing, I’d go with a Kessel trade over one for Phaneuf. He’s younger, better, and yes, more expensive, but younger and better matters a lot. The extra million dollars against the cap wouldn’t be prohibitive there, and teams will be more likely to give away futures for a player of this caliber now than one of Phaneuf’s.
I mean, you’d rather have Kessel, that’s for sure. But if the choice is between Kessel for another year or two (when you can try to move him again) plus whatever you get for Phaneuf, or Phaneuf for the same period plus what you get for Kessel, the latter is probably the smarter tack for a rebuilding club.
But teams have to be interested for trades to happen, and given the constraints of no-trades in general, they have to be the right teams. This is a problem, but not one that’s impossible to overcome. Kyle Dubas is handling trades for the Leafs these days and he’s a smart guy, so whatever happens this summer will actually be in the club’s best interest.
That’s a new and exciting world for the Leafs. But things have to get worse before they can get better.