Smoke, Mirrors, and Phil Kessel

The 2015 NHL Entry Draft was once something that fans searched for using a telescope, desparate for a date on the calendar to be excited about. Today, it’s right under their nose; the day has come and we’re hours away from the Edmonton Oilers making the first pick (gee, I wonder who it will be). 

For the Leafs, this day isn’t just about who they will select in the 4th and 24th positions. The team is also looking to make some moves to shake up the core. The biggest name out there? Star winger Phil Kessel, who is apparently on the market, and has earned the interest of several teams. Many have speculated how this plays out, but here’s my theory – it doesn’t.

5. It’s a Sell-Low Situation

One look at the current market will tell you that this is probably a bad time to trade, well, just about anyone. Teams are starting to feel the consequences of over-spending in anticipation of a rising salary cap, and with that ceiling going up by just $2.4 million this year, there aren’t very many competitive teams that can afford to bring in any big money players right now.

Kessel, of course, is a big money player. He’s still got seven years left on a deal that has an $8 million cap hit, which, while not at all unfair for a player of his caliber, is a lot for a team to take on. It doesn’t help that the 27 year old had his “worst” season since 2011, scoring twelve fewer goals and seven fewer assists than the year prior. Teams that want to make this work will definitely low ball, citing a “declining forward” and countering with salary dumps that they have to make to so much as make this possible.

4. An Empty Pipeline

The Leafs are empty at right wing. Nobody wants to say it, but it’s true. Phil Kessel is all they’ve got.

In the present, you see a barren wasteland. A look at the lineup from the closing night of the season shows a team that supplemented Kessel with Joakim Lindstrom, Casey Bailey, and Colton Orr. Lindstrom wasn’t a natural right winger, Bailey has about nine seconds of pro experience, and Colton Orr was up on a favour. 

A look at the prospect depth chart is even less enouraging; Connor Brown and Andreas Johnson look good, but still need time to develop. Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov are complete wildcards at the moment. Fabrice Herzog seems to be happy with going back to Europe. The hope is that two pleasant surprises continue to beat the odds on their way to the NHL, but at the moment, Phil is the only player in the organization that can be relied upon to play the position all year.

That’s bad.

3. He Wants To Stay

Every since he rolled into town, Kessel has been adament that Toronto is where he wants to be. Despite not being overly outgoing, he enjoys the city and loves the idea of being in a hockey hotbed – especially when the team starts to do well.

But words are just words, and actions are way more important. Other than the fact that he made no requests for this shopping around to happen, a great place to look is the list of eight teams that he was required to put down for his No-Trade Clause.

A quick look at the group makes it very obvious that he’s positioning himself to stay here. There is no way in hell that he’s being traded to Montreal, or returning to Boston. Minnesota, Los Angeles, Chicago, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia combine to have enough cap space to buy exactly four things from the McDonalds Value Menu. Any other team would require his approval. If Kessel feels comfortable with weathering the storm for a little while longer, why not stick with him?

2. The Babcock Factor

Many have been quick to point out that Kessel doesn’t play the X’s and O’s style of game that they would like to see out of him, particularly when it comes to two-way effort. The reality is, he’s only had two full-on head coaches in Toronto. Ron Wilson wasn’t particularly fond of him, and Randy Carlyle wasn’t particularly fond of his wingers doing anything other than standing still at centre ice to wait for a puck. There were some noticiable visual improvement’s in Kessel’s game under Peter Horachek, so.. maybe it’s worth having him spend some time with the supposed best coach in the league?

I mean, hey. Pavel Datsyuk used to be considered a playoff choker and is now one of the most well-respected players of our generation. I’m pretty sure he can shake some of the stigmas off of Kessel’s back if the two work together.

1. There’s plenty of time

The top point is probably the most straightforward. Phil Kessel is 27 years old, and has several years ahead of him until he starts being something other than one of the best Right Wingers in the NHL. He has seven years left on his contract, so there’s no risk of him running off to free agency, either. He’s far from a ticking time bomb.

As well, the team should at least see how free agency plays out. Maybe teams that are half-interested in him now lose out on every signing they wanted, increasing their willingness to give value for him? Maybe a bunch of players decide that all they’ve ever wanted to do in life is play for the Leafs, and the team is suddenly in a situation that doesn’t involve burning everything down? Maybe if he starts the season hot, a team that struggles will make a panic move?

Realistically, the Leafs have years to figure this one out, if they even ever have to. It doesn’t have to be done today.

Smoke and Mirrors

I honestly believe that Leafs management has considered all of the above points already, and that they aren’t going to accept a pittance for their best player. Even the staff they replaced would know better than to sell low when your’e just entering a sales window for a potentially high-value asset.

Realistically, Phil Kessel is only on the market so that the Leafs can declare that they’re selling for the sake of selling. By taking your best player at his lowest value and saying that you’re open to offers, you make assets that you’re more eager to get rid of look more like situational casualties rather than top priorities. Teams that would question the availability of, say, Tyler Bozak or Joffrey Lupul will look to the Leafs’ current situation and say “well, if Phil Kessel could get traded, I suppose this makes sense”, rather than “why do the Leafs seem so eager to trade Tyler Bozak?”.

Kessel will act as the starting point to many conversations in the next few days. I doubt that many of them go anywhere, and the ones that do will go into lower cost options that the Leafs are more interested in selling.

Check back in an hour when the Leafs trade Phil Kessel just to spite me.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Jeffler I can always count on you to supply the chuckle of the day. “There were several visual improvements in Kessel’s game under Peter Horachek. Pure comedy gold there Jeffler.

  • Kanuunankuula

    I don’t get all this selling low nonsense. Gm’s around the league aren’t stupid. It’s not like they don’t have a very large body of work to look at for Kessel and see what he is. Good lord you guys make it sound like all the gms in the NHL just got hired last year and only have one year of experience to look back on. Kessel is what kessel is. A premium offensive talent that has defensive issues. His price isn’t going to change massively over one down year at the age of 27.

  • silentbob

    Selling Low – I think this is over blown right now, he just had an off-year when the entire team did. If they hold onto him and he has another off year……

    Empty Pipeline – Who cares? They are rebuilding.

    He wants to stay – Who cares? Should the Leafs hold onto everyone wants to stay? Would anyone make this argument to keep Bozak or Lupul? The best thing for the team to trade him. What he wants doesn’t matter in this situation.

    Babcock – Kessel didn’t do well with the Bruins defensive system before getting here. And if he doesn’t respond well under Babcock…..see selling low.

    Lots of Time – There MIGHT be. It looks like he had an off year, he also might have started regressing, which means holding onto him is going to make trading him that much harder. The issue’s with Kessel is that Kessel is a different kind of person who does things differently then most players (because he is able too), and do you really want young players like Rielly, Nylander, Brown etc… learning from example from a guy who leaves practice asap, is short with the media, has questionable off-ice habits etc…? There is an article out there that questions his influence on Bozak, I don’t want to read the samething about Nylander in a couple years.

    The Leafs need to rebuild, the team needs a fresh start. They need a new culture, new leadership. A new way of playing. They will not really/fully get that until trade away the current core. Look at the Blackhawks roster in 2002-03, how many of those players they keep around to be “part of the rebuilding” for any of the reasons mentioned here?

  • Kanuunankuula

    I don’t get the praise for Kessel’s play under Horacek, either. Don’t get me wrong, I think Horacek is a better coach than Carlyle, but let’s be fair to Randy – he got career seasons out of Kessel, and even managed to coach Bozak so well that many (at least temporarily) thought the guy was a legit #1 centre.