Maple Leafs: Trading Phil Kessel Not The Best Move

For a few weeks now, there’s been some buzz about the chances of GM Dave Nonis and the Leafs trading Phil Kessel.

The idea had recently surfaced in a Damien Cox Toronto Star article. That was followed by a couple of reports from TSN’s Darren Dreger that Nonis was at least ‘listening to offers’ for Kessel, though nothing could be described as imminent, nor was Toronto specifically shopping the winger. And then came word from Kessel’s agent Wade Arnott that while Phil was not talking extension with the team right now, “If you asked Phil today, he’d love to finish his career here in Toronto.”

Phil Kessel

Why trade your best scorer? (Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

When Kessel got off to a slow start, it led to speculation far and wide as to what the Leafs could indeed get in trade for the streaky, sometimes enigmatic sniper.

It shouldn’t be a surprise there’s interest in Kessel. He’s led the Leafs each season he’s been with Toronto in both goals and points. From 2009-10 to present, he’s scored 101 goals, good for 11th overall among NHL forwards, just behind Daniel Sedin, Matt Moulson and Bobby Ryan, and ahead of James Neal, Rick Nash and Thomas Vanek. As Dreger explained, teams certainly have interest in a guy who can score. And while there’s periods of time when Phil can’t find the net, he scores. He’s one of the few proven, high-value players on the Leaf roster.

But, maybe there’s a better case for not trading Kessel, and following this season, trying to sign him to an extension.

The Case to Trade Phil Now

In his column, Cox begins by making a case that the Leafs shouldn’t deal their first-round draft pick, recounting the numerous times the franchise did, including the deal that brought Kessel to Toronto. He goes on to say Kessel has not turned into the franchise-type player envisioned when the deal was made. And since the Leafs paid a hefty price, and Kessel isn’t a rock to build upon, the best course of action would be to trade him, especially now, while he remains under contract and is an attractive player to playoff-bound teams.

That was on January 28, when Phil had yet to score, and P.K. Subban was being talked about in terms of offer sheets, which would have cost the Leafs draft choices. Yes, in that if it came down to an either/or, you-must-trade-something scenario between Kessel or the Leafs’ first-round draft choice, the team is better to trade Kessel. But that ‘either/or’ scenario currently exist.

Further, Cox opines:

At least when Kessel was acquired it could be imagined that one day he would be an untouchable. But it hasn’t happened, and worse, in the early days of the shortened 2012-13 season it appears he may be poised to struggle through his most difficult season in a Leaf uniform yet.

Kessel appears ill-conditioned, isolated, troubled or simply massively unlucky, or some combination of those.

Whatever the case, it is becoming difficult to imagine a scenario in which Kessel remains a Leaf beyond the end of this season.

Is That The Case?

At the time, Kessel had yet to score a goal. But, ill-conditioned? Isolated and troubled? At that point, Kessel had 2 assists in the season opener, was pointless in 4 games, but was only -2 and had 24 shots on goal.  Jonas Siegel of TSN noted on January 25:

However unlikely, Kessel’s slow start shouldn’t be of major concern yet. In each of the Leafs’ four games – two wins, two losses – he has amassed a number of quality chances, failing only to score.

On February 1, as Kessel’s drought continued, Siegel had quotes from Kessel’s teammates:

“He’s working his balls off,” Cody Franson said of Kessel’s 20-minute effort. “I give him a lot of credit. He’s taken some heat, but give him a lot of credit he’s working very hard.”

“He worked his ass off tonight,” (James) van Riemsdyk agreed. “He had a lot of chances, used his speed, was shooting. It seemed like he put it everywhere but the back of the net.”

And when Kessel had finally scored in Winnipeg, the video here seems to suggest that his teammates were genuinely happy for him – not so isolated.

How about ‘simply massively unlucky’? By February 12, Sean McIndoe opined that while Kessel was an early-season disappointment,

He’s already ended the scoreless streak, recording the winning goal against the Jets on Thursday and adding his second of the year in a blowout win over the Habs on Saturday. Kessel has a reputation as a streaky player, and his high shot totals during the slump always suggested that it was as much a result of bad luck as anything.

Going into the Leafs’ 16th game of the season, Kessel was 2nd in team scoring, and led the team in assists.

The Positives of Phil

Joffrey Lupul

Joffrey Lupul seems to mesh with Kessel, and the Leafs have committed to Lupul long-term. (John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE)

The trade that brought Kessel to Toronto has been hashed and rehashed, and there’s no doubt that Boston did very well. It’s not a secret that Kessel is not a cornerstone-type player – he is not the franchise.

But, Phil Kessel is a very good player. And he has value as a Leaf moving forward. This is a guy who has consistently scored 30 or more goals – since 2005-06, only 2 other Maple Leafs (Mats Sundin twice, Nik Kulemin once) have reached that level. Moreover, while Kessel is regarded as a goal scorer, he is starting to get credit for his playmaking. Going into game 16 this season, he leads the team with 9 assists, and posted a career-high 45 assists in 2011-12 to lead the Leafs in the category.

It can’t be denied that Kessel has chemistry with his regular linemates, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. Bozak may not be a bonafide NHL first-line center, but he’s done a decent job with Kessel, and has 10 points through 15 games this season. Lupul had a good comeback year in 2011-12 on Kessel’s opposite wing. In fact, many observe that Lupul’s absence due to an injury in game 3 could be a major contributor to Kessel’s inability to score this season. Even James van Riemsdyk has enjoyed some early success playing with Kessel,

What’s The Return on Kessel?

Cox offered that “Unlike Burke, Nonis doesn’t have to defend the Kessel deal. No better way to cut ties with the past and move on than to move this player.”

The team is committed to Lupul and van Riemsdyk through the 2017-18 season. It’s fair to say that Lupul and van Riemsdyk could be effective without Phil Kessel. But, there seems to be evidence, through Lupul’s performance in 2011-12 and the early returns from van Riemsdyk with Kessel, that keeping number 81 makes more sense?

True, following the 2013-14 season, Kessel becomes a free agent, and he’ll be in line for a significant raise, perhaps $7-8MM per season. It’s a long way away, but it should not be forgotten the Leafs also have 2 other large contracts in Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek (two other players whose futures in Toronto are uncertain) that end at the same time. It should be around that time we also begin to truly see the effects of the recent collectively bargained agreement on salaries and free agency. It’s too early to know for sure that Toronto could not afford to keep Kessel, or wouldn’t make other moves to ensure Kessel remains a Leaf.

Columbus reaped a good young defender and a draft pick for Jeff Carter, and then again traded Rick Nash (plus a player and a 3rd round pick) for 3 players and the Ranger’s first-round pick in 2013. Perhaps the Leafs could get a similar return. But what is that return?

In some ways, contrary to Cox’s assessment that trading Kessel breaks with the past and allows the organization to move on, it actually could put more pressure on Nonis to hit a homerun. Take the circumstances of the Leafs and Kris Versteeg. Fans can watch Viktor Stalberg toil for the Blackhawks, while Versteeg plays a decent offensive role for Florida, and Leaf fans await the arrival of (admittedly highly-thought-of) Stuart Percy. Now imagine how observers will react if Boston has Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight, some other team has Kessel scoring 30 or more goals a year, and the Leafs have a couple of players who ‘might be’ contributors in 3 or 5 seasons.

A Different Scenario

Brian Burke and David Nonis (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Perhaps where Burke was unable to get Phil the right centerman, Nonis might be more successful? (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

What if the organization were to see that they have assembled 4 of their top-6 in Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski and van Riemsdyk. That’s a starting point for 2 dangerous offensive lines. Now, instead of trading their most dangerous offensive weapon, Nonis were to make his mark by acquiring a top-flight center to help complete that top-6?

Isn’t is just as true that part of why the Kessel-for-picks deal turned out so lopsided was that Toronto always lacked the proper centerman who could truly exploit Kessel’s abilities? Instead of breaking with the past by trading Phil, what if Nonis were able to complete the job by finding an upgrade from Bozak?

Make no mistake, that’s not to suggest that’s just as easy as snapping one’s fingers. Top centers are not readily available, and there’s a high cost associated with acquiring one. It does not as yet appear Toronto has any prospects who will likely fill that role. But, the Leafs have some assets aside from Kessel and their first-round pick. There is money coming off the books in Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi for next season. There are decisions to be made concerning some of the veteran defencemen.

In truth, Dave Nonis has been the general manager for less than 2 months. He’s familiar with the organization certainly, and with Kessel and his contract. To suggest the best course of action is to trade your top producer, more out of creating a clean slate rather than to fill specific (and at times glaring) organizational needs smacks more of the kind of hasty and poorly-thought-out decisions this franchise has made in the past.

Phil Kessel an untouchable? No. If there’s a deal out there that truly improves the Leafs, by all means, you make that deal. But to put the franchise in a position where the only consistent 30+ goal scorer in the organization is sent packing in the next few weeks makes little sense.


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