Phil Kessel Trade: What Could the Toronto Maple Leafs Acquire?

Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel has just one more year remaining on his contract after this season (Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

Here we go again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of trade rumours. The only difference this time is that those rumours don’t involve Roberto Luongo, Bobby Ryan or Rick Nash. In fact, those rumours don’t even involve a player from another team. At least not yet.

This time we’re talking about a player of their own. One who has been the face of the franchise since being shipped into town prior to the 2009-2010 season. One that was coveted by former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and one who has constantly been ridiculed for not being as promising as Tyler Seguin.

Yes, we’re talking about Phil Kessel.

The connection between Burke and Kessel has been well documented over the years. There is no doubt that the trade that brought Kessel to Toronto is the most defining moment of Burke’s tenure with the Leafs and that is perhaps why no one, not even the rough and tough Toronto media, dared to even think about a Kessel trade.

Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kessel was able to benefit from the emergence of Joffrey Lupul last season (Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

But with Burke now gone and the Leafs in need of a major shake up, it might be the time for new GM Dave Nonis to consider moving the Leafs’ all-star forward. As mentioned by TSN’s Darren Dreger on a previous edition of the popular hockey segment “Insider Trading,” Nonis isn’t exactly looking to trade Kessel at the moment but there is interest and Nonis is listening to what teams have to offer. Although a deal certainly is not imminent, that can’t make us help but wonder what the Leafs would be able to draw in the event of a Kessel trade.

Kessel may be an all-star but that doesn’t necessarily mean he would bring in a return equal to that of what a player like Claude Giroux or Ilya Kovalchuk would simply based on the fact that Kessel is an extremely streaky player. He’s one of the best in the league when he’s going and one of the worst offensively when he’s not.

If you were to look off last season’s statistics─82 points in as many games, sixth most in the league─there is no doubt that Kessel would draw in an NHL player, a young and very promising prospect as well as a first round draft pick, possibly a high one. However, this season has been much different. With just one goal in seven games despite the amount of shots and scoring chances he has accumulated, Kessel has been struggling mightily, bringing down his trade value.

Let’s start of by assuming Nonis and company were ready to trade Kessel within the next week. That would still give Kessel a few games to heat up and put together a nice streak but probably not enough to draw in a larger return package than he has already set for himself so far this season.

Still, the fact that Kessel is known league-wide as a 30-plus goal scorer each season would likely make it automatic that the receiving team would send a well-developed NHLer who would make an immediate impact to the Maple Leafs. From there, it would be up to Nonis to negotiate what he would feel to be an appropriate fit on the Leafs’ roster. That might include a prospect and/or a draft pick.

Kessel, however, is generally known as a top offensive player in the NHL. He showed last season that, when put on a line with at least one other player worthy of receiving equal minutes, he can score with the best of them. As well, we all know that Nonis and those who surround him would be smarter than trading Kessel while he is in the midst of a cold streak rather than maximizing the potential return while he is playing at his peak. With that and the fact that the Leafs don’t appear to be in any hurry to move the 25-year-old, it makes sense to focus more on what Toronto could get in return down the road.

Phil Kessel Maple Leafs

Would the Maple Leafs be able to get more or less for Kessel than the Blue Jackets got for Nash? (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The Columbus Blue Jackets traded Rick Nash, their captain, to the New York Rangers last summer in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon. Although Nash and Kessel are two completely different players in their own rights, Nash may be the most comparable to have recently been traded.

Dubinsky, 26, is a centreman who can score occasionally but mainly contributes to the forecheck with his rough style. Anisimov, 24, has been recognized as a solid NHL prospect at his young age but hasn’t exactly materialized. He never really did for the Rangers and has yet to do so for the Blue Jackets. Finally there is Erixon, who at age 21, still has potential to be a top-four defenceman in the NHL.

Yes, you’re right, the Blue Jackets lost that trade, but that’s another story for another day. The point is that if the Blue Jackets got that return for Nash and lost the trade, the Maple Leafs should be able to get something similar for Kessel with a few minor modifications.

With the emergence of Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, the Leafs might finally have the opportunity to spend more time looking to improve the back-end rather than adding to the top-six forward group. Either way, the Leafs could use a top forward to help with the power play and overall scoring or a top defenceman to improve what has pretty much been a league-worst penalty kill since 2003-2004─two lockouts ago.

The ideal situation here for the Maple Leafs (a team that no one is quite sure if it is still rebuilding or not) would be to bring in a top forward or defenceman, a middle of the road prospect and a high draft pick. If you wanted to limit the return while maximizing the potential, perhaps a top forward or defenceman to go with a high first round pick or a second NHL calibre player who is ready to make an impact in the league would do.

The problem is that even though Frattin, Kadri and van Riesmdyk have shown they have the ability to produce at a nice level for the Leafs, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will continue to score at the rate they have. With that, it would be best to wait beyond this year’s trade deadline of April 3 to ensure that the team has enough solid production up front that they can afford to move one of its top offensive contributors.

Trading away your all-star player is surely a big decision for any professional sports team. It is no different for the Toronto Maple Leafs when it comes to Phil Kessel, who has been the first player people have though of in connection to the blue and white for years. While we aren’t entirely sure if Dave Nonis and his management staff will move Kessel, we do know that if they elect to do so, the return won’t be too shabby.

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Lukas Hardonk