Over the last several weeks, hockey fans have undoubtedly acquainted themselves with the struggles of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Having lost 11 straight games before downing the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night by a 5-1 score, the Leafs’ tailspin under interim head coach Peter Horachek has produced quite a few narratives that fans, media, and analysts have had a field day with.
On the other hand, the New York Islanders have also been playing through a bit of a rough patch since losing Kyle Okposo to an upper-body injury. While Anders Lee has been filling in seamlessly alongside John Tavares on New York’s top-line, there may be some fans that believe that a play could be made for Kessel on the Isles’ behalf by March.
Despite the fact that rumor-mongering will continue until the trade deadline passes, there is some value in exploring the viability of a “Phil Kessel to Islanders” type of deal. Such a trade might seem like an out-of-reach blockbuster deal that Garth Snow has largely abstained from making in his tenure as New York’s GM, but the aforementioned scenario isn’t as farfetched as it may look – at least when one considers all of the factors surrounding both teams at this point in time.
The Kessel Conundrum
When things are going bad in Toronto, no player, coach, or executive is safe from drawing the ire of the Maple Leafs’ fan-base or the scrutiny of the Canadian media.
Mired in a stretch that has seen the team miss the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons, Toronto’s 11-game losing streak certainly hasn’t inspired any confidence in the Maple Leafs’ fan-base. Throughout all of this turmoil, Phil Kessel has found himself at the center of Toronto’s losing streak as he managed to score only four points during the month of January.
As a result of his lack of production, the questions surrounding Kessel have started to take shape. While some may ask if Kessel’s production has tapered off for good, there might be a fair amount of individuals that have been contemplating if Kessel really is a proper long-term fit for the Maple Leafs.
Although former bench boss Ron Wilson might not be the most objective observer of the Toronto Maple Leafs, his evaluation of Kessel definitely fanned the flames in Maple Leafs Country when he said:
I think you can win with Phil Kessel. He shows obvious signs of brillance throughout the year. But Phil’s problem, and I think it’s pretty much the way Phil’s been his whole career, he’s two weeks on and two weeks off. You just hope that you can get him playing his best hockey for as long as possible. You can’t rely on Phil. It’s just the way it is. He comes and goes, and he gets emotional. He lets that affect his game and his relationship with other players. But that’s just the nature of the beast. That’s what you have to coach. You have to know that Phil’s going to give you everything he’s got for two or three weeks and then for the next two or three weeks, everything seems to go wrong for Phil. That’s just the way it is.
Despite Wilson’s perception of Kessel, there is simply no doubting what the forward has brought to the table in almost six seasons of wearing a Maple Leafs uniform. Failing to score 30 or more goals – which could very well be attributed to the lockout shortening the ’12-’13 NHL season – just once in his tenure in Toronto, Kessel has been an extremely valuable producer for the Leafs, and one whose production would be difficult to replace.
Believing that Kessel is an “uncoachable” player not only does an injustice to the forward and his abilities, but it also marginalizes his past contributions and levies blame on a specific player for a team’s perceived shortcomings. Shouldering a heavy workload and having tremendous expectations placed on him, Kessel hasn’t failed to live up to the standards placed on him by others. However, with so much attention being focused on Kessel’s offensive production, one has to wonder if a change of scenery/responsibility would ultimately work out best for the forward and the Maple Leafs.
Destination: Long Island?
A couple of weeks ago, THW explored if Garth Snow’s trade deadline plans would change based on Kyle Okposo’s injury, and while the belief is still firm that no major moves will be made on the Isles’ behalf, one doesn’t have to strain their brain too much to understand the element that a player of Kessel’s caliber could bring to Long Island.
Sure, Kyle Okposo will be ready to return to New York’s lineup with about three weeks left in the ’14-’15 NHL season, but adding Kessel in the meantime would only add to the potency of New York’s roster. Whether playing on Tavares’ wing or being slotted on the Isles’ second line, Kessel wouldn’t be expected to shoulder the offensive burden for an Islanders team that has been receiving contributions from all portions of its lineup throughout the season.
Now, some may be asking why the Islanders would need Kessel if the team has been generating scoring opportunities from the first line down to the fourth line, but that’s the beauty of going from a team that has very slim playoff hopes to one of the top teams in the Metropolitan Division. Playing for a chance at the postseason could challenge Kessel to elevate his level of play to that of a hard-working and oftentimes fast-paced team – and there’s no need to remind hockey fans what happens when the forward is firing on all cylinders.
Simply put, Kessel can be integrated into the Isles’ top-six with relative ease. Of course, the various conceptions and stories about Kessel could be unnerving to any hockey fan, but the Islanders have shown that they are not afraid to take a chance on players that others might not consider to be great team presence characters – Josh Ho-Sang, anyone?
Although comparing a 27-year old’s perceived attitude toward the game of hockey to that of a still-maturing player could be extremely faulty, one has to think that Garth Snow would only take a chance on dealing for Kessel if he felt that the winger was mentally stable enough to keep the Isles’ current team identity intact.
While Kessel’s character can be debated to no end, one has to think about the potential package that would be required in order to bring Kessel to Long Island. With the younger core of current Islanders (Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee) enjoying good seasons in their own right, it would be highly unlikely to see one of those three aforementioned players included in a deal for Kessel. The three forwards are simply too valuable to New York’s future plans to be dealt in this stage of their development.
Instead, players from the Islanders’ pipeline – as well as others from the current NHL roster – could possibly fit the bill for Toronto. Prospects such as Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock have been carefully dealt with by New York as the grooming process for both youngsters continues, but one has to wonder if Snow would pass up the opportunity to trade for Kessel – especially if the numbers and return package for Toronto come at the right price.
Taking on a player like Kessel would mean that the Islanders would have to take on the winger’s long-term contract – something that only New York and a select few other teams could do without a problem. Given Toronto’s direction this season, GM Dave Nonis won’t be in a position of power when negotiating any possible deal for Kessel – somewhat like Snow was last season when dealing Thomas Vanek at the 2014 trade deadline.
Prying away Kessel from the Maple Leafs would most likely take way more than a prospect, but New York also has forward depth that could serve well for Toronto. In particular, Michael Grabner could add a speedy element that any team would covet. Using his speed to generate scoring chances, Grabner would not only be useful for the Leafs’ offense, he would be a perfect fit for their penalty kill as his speed, anticipation, and stick-work consistently create problems for any power-play unit in the NHL.
Regardless of who the Islanders would give up in any deal for Kessel, there is little to no possibility that Snow would let go of a piece that is currently integral to New York’s chemistry or continued growth.
In fact, there’s more of a possibility that the scenario below would happen before Snow sacrifices one of his youngsters in a trade:
@IslesFan_Ben BREAKING NEWS: ISLANDERS TRADE A 2020 7th ROUND PICK FOR PHIL KESSEL
— Just beLIeve (@notbrockbottom) February 9, 2015
Building a consistent winner that could sustain a certain level of play throughout the entirety of the regular season and playoffs has been Snow’s agenda as New York’s GM, and it’s unlikely that the potential availability of one player – even one as talented as Kessel – would make the GM take a gamble that involves disrupting the course of his careful plan.
Is There A Need For Kessel?
Seeing as how the Islanders have found a way to win with all parts of their lineup contributing, there might be a good amount of fans that would question making such a deal – and they’re certainly not wrong for employing such a line of thinking.
However, there’s no reason to think that trading for Kessel would be a fruitless endeavor for the Islanders. Adding a player such as Kessel into the mix on Long Island would only make the Islanders a more serious and well-rounded offensive threat.
Making a play for a defenseman at the trade deadline might be a move that many Islanders fans would welcome, but if Calvin de Haan can recover from his forehead laceration and Lubomir Visnovsky plays up to par after being scratched from New York’s lineup, then the Isles would be set with Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey, de Haan, and Visnovsky comprising their three defensive units.
The same argument – more or less – can be made for New York’s offense as the team has been quite effective with their current depth at forward, but there’s also no questioning that the Islanders would be a match-up nightmare for any Eastern Conference team with Kessel on their roster.
The adage that “a good defense is a good offense” has definitely rung true for the Islanders this season as the team is currently fourth in the NHL in scoring. Averaging 3.0 goals per game, New York has given their opponents all that they could handle offensively already – which only makes the mind run wild when thinking about what Kessel would bring to the fold if he was indeed traded to the Islanders.
What Will Likely Happen
With the Islanders further cementing their identity through patience and hard work, it’s especially difficult to envision Garth Snow making an all-out play for Kessel at this year’s deadline.
Incorporating elements from New York’s depth chart (Lee, Mikhail Grabovski) in order to see what works on the top-line, the Islanders have looked within in order to mitigate the loss of Okposo. Despite going through a recent three-game skid, New York hasn’t hit – and doesn’t appear anywhere close to hitting – the panic button.
This is not to say that Snow wouldn’t make a trade to bring Kessel on board, but the deal would have to be one that comes at a cost-efficient to New York. In the same light, unless Dave Nonis finds a sweetheart deal at the deadline, it’s hard to see the GM moving one of his most valuable assets before the summer.
Draft day could very well bring Nonis more offers and a better return for Kessel once cap situations make themselves a bit clearer – and waiting for such proposals would only take the slightest bit of patience from the Toronto GM. All things considered, it would take a perfect storm to bring Kessel to Long Island, so those holding their breath for such a scenario to manifest might be a tad bit upset by deadline day.
Holding firm to their structure, the Islanders have relied on their depth to get them through this season – and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll detract from that anytime soon, even in the face of adversity.
In his third year with The Hockey Writers, Toli covers all things related to the New York Islanders. Focusing on the Islanders, the NHL Draft & draft-eligible prospect goalies, and hockey history, Toli can be contacted on Facebook by searching/messaging Toli Metter and on twitter by searching @ToliMetterTHW.