The Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey’s number one source for soap opera-level melodrama, are embarking on a full-fledged rebuild. 2014-15 was the absolute apex of all that the Leafs’ have been in recent years: really bad on the ice, and a really bad reality show off of it.
It’s been reported that the Leafs are looking at a scorched-earth type roster (Philadelphia 76ers anyone?), where they would essentially build from the ground up. Naturally, the names of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel have been swirling around the rumor mill as prime candidates to be shipped off for younger, cheaper assets.
Ducks A Potential Suitor
Enter the Anaheim Ducks, a team that was one game away from the Stanley Cup Final. The fact that they were so close might suggest that they’re only a minor tweak or two from getting there and eventually winning the whole thing.
The legitimacy of their playoff run has come into question though, as they faced a Winnipeg Jets team with abysmal goaltending and a historically bad possession team in the Calgary Flames. Neither posed a great threat to the Ducks, who had one of the best possession ratings in the league in the last 25 games of the season.
That strong possession game disappeared against Chicago. Throughout the entire series it seemed that the majority of play was taking place in the Ducks’ zone. It became even more obvious once Frederik Andersen’s play dipped that the Ducks simply couldn’t win while getting dominated in their zone. Sustained offense was hard to come by, revealing that maybe Anaheim isn’t quite ready to overcome a team like Chicago.
Kessel is one of the very best right wingers in the National Hockey League. He adds instant offensive punch to any team in need of it. His combination of speed, skill, and a rocket of a wrist shot make him a threat from anywhere on the ice.
The Ducks’ strong possession game towards the end of the season was encouraging, but it’s hard to draw real conclusions from such a small sample. On the season they were a middling possession team, and with the way things played out in the Conference Final, perhaps that’s the team they really are instead of the one we saw in the last 25 games.
Bringing on a player like Kessel would help address that. Kessel’s possession numbers aren’t great, but the Leafs have been one of the league’s very worse in that department for a while now. His tendency to shoot the puck at any given opportunity would undoubtedly improve the Ducks’ possession game, as opponents would all of a sudden have to hone in on Kessel to prevent him from getting a good look at the net, opening up lanes and space for other players.
Put yourself in the shoes of an NHL coach for a second. How exactly would you plan on stopping Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler in one game? Maybe you’d make a call to Joel Quenneville first, and he might have some good ideas. But add Phil Kessel’s name into that mix, and Quenneville might not have as much to offer. That’s the power of adding a star like Kessel; his presence alone makes it infinitely harder for opposing coaches to form their game plans.
Could It Actually Happen?
On the Toronto side of the equation, youth and salary flexibility are at a premium. Although the Ducks are better known for their veteran stars, their impressive stockpile of quality young talent is what actually separates them from the pack.
Players like Sami Vatanen, Rickard Rakell, Hampus Lindholm, and Simon Despres (just to name a few) are all 23 years of age or younger. For a team like the Leafs that is trying to build around youth, any of those names have to be extremely appealing.
The Ducks would probably bristle at the notion of trading either Lindholm or Rakell, as they both represent the future of the franchise. Lindholm is already a stud at 21, and Rakell figures to eventually become the second line center as Kesler ages.
However, a guy like Vatanen who projects to at least be a quality NHL players (not to mention a right-handed shot) would be tough to give up but not altogether irreplaceable. Shea Theodore is another name that has been floated around in trade talks, yet general manager Bob Murray has made clear in the past that the Ducks are unwilling to let go of their prize prospect.
The Ducks have the cap room, the assets, and the need to feasibly make the acquisition of Kessel. As for the Leafs, they certainly must see names on the Anaheim roster that would spur on their rebuild. Yet given that Murray already made a splash last summer in order to acquire Ryan Kesler, and that he’s been reluctant to ship off young players, it’s difficult to see this deal actually happening. Crazier things have happened though.