It’s the time of year where trade rumors are running wild, and none have been more interesting than the prospect of a trade involving Phil Kessel. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun recently reported that the Maple Leafs would most likely have to eat some of Kessel’s salary if they wanted to orchestrate a trade involving the 27-year-old winger. This may be a result of Kessel’s reported list of teams that he would be willing to waive his NTC for. Of those eight teams Pittsburgh has the most cap-space with 13 million available for next year, but with their issues on the blueline, finding a replacement for Orpik and Despres may be a bigger priority. The only other teams on his list that could handle Kessel’s hefty $8 million price tag are the Wild, Kings and Ranger, but all of these teams have a range of important free-agents (Granlund, Stepan, Toffoli, Sekera) to sign in the off-season that would leave them too tight to the cap to handle the cap hit Kessel brings. That leaves the Leafs without any real options unless they are either willing to eat some of Kessel’s salary, or Kessel amends his list of teams he would accept a trade to. With just two options the Leafs are seemingly being forced into eating some of Kessel’s salary, but should they?
You get what you pay for
If you look at what was written in the Toronto Star, or the Sun, you might think Kessel was not only the heart of the Leafs problems, but quite possibly the devil incarnate. The truth couldn’t be farther from it. If there was one silver lining on the Maple Leafs roster over the past few seasons it would, year in and year out, be Phil Kessel. The speedy winger hasn’t missed a single game in the past five seasons and has accrued 151 goals, 188 assists, and 339 points, placing him eighth in the league in that time span. The next closest Leaf? Tyler Bozak, who ranks 80th among all skaters. To bridge the gap betwen Kessel and his teammates you would need the secret of the Bifrost. Understanding the kind of performance you’re getting from a star like Kessel suggesting that his $8 million dollar cap hit is high is ludicrous. Kessel’s price point is directly in line with guys like Claude Giroux, Eric Staal, and Ryan Getzlaf; all people who join him in the top 20 scorers over the past 5 years. If one of these players were to hit free-agency this off-season I would not be in the least bit surprised to see them offered money similar to the kind Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be making. It’s becoming the new standard for stars of their caliber, and as the cap rises this is what we should come to expect. To think that Kessel is being over-paid because he has had one down season over the past five years (where he scored 25 goals, and was still the Leafs leading scorer) is beyond asinine. It’s plain stupid.
The knocks against Kessel
There are a plethora of knocks against Phil Kessel: He’s fat, he doesn’t backcheck, he’s a cancer in the locker-room. While some of this is true, it’s important to keep in mind that none of this really matters. Regardless of his physique he still has one of the most explosive strides in the league and his ability to go blueline to blueline in no time flat is nothing short of impressive. Although Kessel is not the most dedicated back-checker, it’s a common complaint against players of his skill, and it’s something that could be overlooked if he played on a more structurally sound team. If the Leafs had a competent defence, or even just a strong defensive center, to pair with Kessel his lack of backchecking wouldn’t be as big of an issue. Don’t believe me? Just look at Patrick Kane: Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were all able to cover his defensive responsibilities, allowing him to focus solely on being a dangerous offensive weapon. It’s not just him either, this behaviour happens around the league. Kane has Toews, Seguin has Benn, Perry has Getzlaf, and Ovechkin has Backstrom. This style of play is normal. As for the perception that Kessel is a cancer in the locker room, the problem is that it really doesn’t matter. Professional athletes are not always nice people. They do bad things, but teams conveniently forget about this when it comes along with elite talent, and a bad attitude won’t be the reason Kessel doesn’t get full value.
Command the market
The Leafs have every right to expect a team to pay full value for Phil Kessel and they shouldn’t expect anything less. They are trading away one of the best forwards in the NHL and there is no reason why they should not expect other teams to pay for that. At the end of the day, no matter what team Kessel ends up with he will immediately provide elite level scoring and transform their offense. There’s a price to be paid for that, especially in a cap league, and unfortunately for the rest of the NHL, it doesn’t come cheap.