I think the Leafs have to trade Phil Kessel. It doesn’t matter who their coach is or whether or not Kessel has ever even been put in a position to succeed by the Leafs, the fact is, if they don’t move him, how are they supposed to get any better?
As I suggested in my last post, it’d be nice to keep him, but if you can’t trade your youth or your draft picks (which, clearly, the Leafs cannot) and your salary cap is not in very good shape (which the Leafs’ isn’t) how exactly do you improve what is, even with a miracle-working coach, a team that can hope for 8th place in a best-case-scenario?
The fact is – and I’ve tried to think through every situation – there is no logical argument for keeping Kessel, since he’s expensive, and by the time the Leafs can hope to compete, he’ll be in his thirties. Also, if they keep him, they’re better in the short term and thus drafting higher and only delaying how long it will take to improve.
So, being that I think the Leafs have to trade him, here is a hypothetical, just for fun, list of potential trades. These are not trade rumours. I cannot stress that enough.
If you were in charge, where would you send him? What would you want back? Keep in mind that given his salary and the year he had last season, Kessel’s value is hard to peg down. Maybe the following proposals are too much to ask, if that’s the case, let’s imagine the Leafs would add other players or take bad salaries on in order to make the trades more palatable – the point of this exercise isn’t to predict what exactly will happen, but to have fun and kick ideas around about what players the Leafs could maybe get back.
The reason I wanted to do this was that since it became apparent that the Leafs would have to move Kessel, I’ve heard “sky is falling” reports from the likes of Bill Watters, who suggested the Leafs would have to eat a ton of salary and wouldn’t get much back, and the Hockey News who suggested an offensively small package of Jacob De la Rose, goalie prospect Zach Fucale and Montreal’s late first round pick this draft. Personally, I think Kessel’s contract – while a huge commitment – is not even close to bad, and even if he had lower points totals last year, the shots were still there and a lot – like most of it actually – had to do with plain old bad luck.
Kessel is still an elite player in his prime who, if he gets a legit centre and some sheltered minutes (like Patrick Kane) on a team with secondary scoring, has a legitimate shot at 50 goals and a scoring title. If the Leafs can’t get something comparable to what I am suggesting, then they need a better salesman making trade proposals.
1. To the Flyers
The Flyers have not been mentioned as a rumored destination, but we’re just having fun right? After several years of Bozak, Claude Giroux would be a dream centre for Kessel. Voracek shoots left, so perhaps he could be used on LW instead of RW, and the Flyers could have one of, if not the most talented line(s) in the NHL.
In exchange, the Leafs would take Sean Couturier and Vincent Lecavalier. Now, the Leafs surely don’t want Lecavalier, but in order to make the Cap work, they would have to take on his salary.
Even though he played nearly two minutes less per game at Even-Strength than Giroux, Couturier finished with just six points less. He also played tougher minutes and a massive amount of harder zone-starts. He is one of the game’s premier two-way centres and has a good chance of being the next Bergeron – who himself would be maybe the games biggest star of the last decade if defense got you as many fans as offense.
He’s 22 with good size and a chance to score even more than he has if given a bigger role. He is a player a team could build around. If I am rebuilding a team, I want either Couturier or J.Staal as one of my centres.
To the Canadiens
After losing in the second-round, there was lots of talk about how the Habs could use a second scoring winger after Pacioretty, and even some rumours about their interest in Kessel. In exchange for Phil Kessel, the Leafs should ask the Habs for Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
Since Galchenyuk isn’t signing for less than $3 million, and Gallagher already makes close to $4 million, the salaries are almost a wash, and the Leafs would be adding two players under 23 to their roster.
Gallagher is a scrappy player who not only produces points, but drives possession. He is a fast, two-way player and has never posted a possession rating under 50%, despite playing on a team who isn’t that great at possessing the puck.
As for Galchenyuk, he’s a riddle with a ton of potential. Is he a centre or a winger? Why hasn’t he fully broken out? In certain games you don’t see him and in others he looks like a superstar. The Canadiens may have a “win now” attitude and the Leafs could capitalize on it. This past season he averaged just over a half point-per-game, but did produce 33 points at even-strength, good for 35th among centres and around the same amount as Sedin, Kopitar. Johanson and Couture.
To the Hurricanes
I’ve suggested before that the Leafs trade Kessel to the Hurricanes for Jordan Staal and that they use their money to take on Alex Semin to help offset the deal. Beyond Staal, the Hurricanes also own the 5th pick, which, if they would also include Elias Lindholm, I think it would also be a good deal.
To be honest, Lindholm and the 5th is probably a bit steep, but it’s just the starting point here and the teams could obviously work it out to make it fair.
Staal is a two-way center and the last five Cup winners all had similar players (Bergeron, Kopitar, Toews) and Lindholm is a dynamic young C with a ton of upside – perfect for a rebuild. Either choice would be fine with me.
To the Panthers
For Jon Huberdeau and a bad contract so the Panthers could afford Kessel.
Huberdeau put up 40 even-strength points last season and is only going to get better. Responsible defensively and capable of becoming an elite player, the 21-year-old would be the perfect addition for the rebuilding Leafs.
It seems unlikely the Panthers would part with Huberdeau, but it can’t hurt to try. He is a gifted hockey player with a ton of talent and would look amazing skating on a line next to Nazem Kadri.
To the Oilers
The Oilers clearly need a goalie and the idea of putting Phil Kessel with Connor McDavid is pretty damn insane. Add in the fact that with a three-year window before they have to make Connor McDavid the highest paid player in the NHL, the Oilers are, by necessity, moving into a “win-now” phase.
With that in mind, the Leafs should send Bernier and Kessel to Edmonton in exchange for Leon Draisaitl, the 16th and 33rd overall picks in this years draft and their first rounder selection in 2017.
The Oilers have two second round picks and their first next season is likely not going to be very high, so it’s not that high of a price to pay for a starting goalie and one of the best wingers in hockey. The Leafs would be able to go forward with Reimer, build around Draisaitl and hope to get lucky with the three picks. It’s win-win for everyone, and to make salaries work, the Leafs could take on the contract of Purcell, Ference or Pouliot.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.