Toronto Maple Leafs management is at a crossroads in determining the future of the team and it all relies on how they handle the Phil Kessel situation.
Nine games through this shortened season, the Maple Leafs have a record of 4-5, demonstrating that they are once again a “bubble team” destined to finish anywhere from seventh to 13th in the Eastern Conference. After demoralizing losses to the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, both powerhouse teams in the East, it is evident that the Maple Leafs have a great deal of work to complete to become a contender.
Maple Leafs management would be foolish to think that the current Leafs core will see success in the near future without being upgraded. This raises the issue of how to deal with Kessel.
Recently, Kessel’s lack of production has sparked trade talk in the media and among the fans. Goalless through nine games, many wonder if Kessel should remain a key component of this Leafs team.
Assuming that general manager Dave Nonis realizes a change is necessary in making the Leafs a contender, they are left with two potential options: trade Kessel and rebuild the team properly or get an established number one centre to play with Kessel and attempt to turn the current team into a competitor by filling the holes in its roster.
These holes include a number one centre and a number one goaltender. Since management seems to be committed to the James Reimer/Ben Scrivens experiment, a first line centre has become top priority should the Maple Leafs take this route.
If management elects to trade Kessel they would effectively spark a true rebuild in Toronto; something that many thought should have happened five years ago. With Kessel becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014, trading him now will maximize his return.
However, trading Kessel for other roster players would simply fill a hole by creating another one. The deal would likely include draft picks, prospects and young NHL players, suggesting a rebuild might be a pliable option.
The longer management waits, the more Kessel becomes a “rental” player and his trade value diminishes. With Joffrey Lupul recently signing a contract of $5.25 million for five years and Mikail Grabovksi signing a contract worth $5.4 million, Kessel would surely demand in excess of $6-7 million per year. That’s a hefty price to pay for a 30-goal player with no physical or defensive aspect to his game, especially with the salary cap decreasing in the summer.
With just four players signed past the 2013-2014 season, a true rebuild would not be hindered by players with big contracts and no-trade clauses signed long-term, something that Toronto has seen a great deal of over the last decade. Trading Kessel would commit Nonis and company to a rebuild in Toronto, causing one or more of Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur and Mike Komisarek to be traded for as many quality picks and prospects as possible.
If Kessel is traded before the deadline for picks and/or prospects, the Maple Leafs would be looking at the Jeff Carter and Rick Nash trades for a comparable trade value. Obviously these players bring a significantly more physical and defensive aspect to their game, so Kessel would not receive the same return.
A realistic value for Kessel to a playoff team looking to add scoring and become a contender without overpaying would be a top-prospect, a young roster player and a late first round pick. This return would definitely assist in a rebuild but more importantly it would signify management’s willingness to commit to rebuilding a team that has been plagued by mediocrity for the better part of a decade.
However, Kessel is only 25 years old himself. Since coming to Toronto, he has had three straight 30-goal seasons regardless of his lack of consistency. No offence to Tyler Bozak, who is a good hockey player and the best the Maple Leafs can muster for the first line role, but Kessel may be able to crack 40 or 50 goals with a true first line centre beside him.
Kessel is not the franchise player you build a team around nor is he going to win the Selke Trophy or charge the net on a rush. He is a pure goal scorer. What he will do is consistently put up 30-plus goal seasons, no matter who is on his line.
As a complimentary player, Kessel’s game becomes much more attractive. This leads to the Maple Leafs management’s second option: getting a true number one centre to play beside Kessel and building the current team into one that has a chance at contending.
Last season, Kessel had more goals (37) and points (82) than any player from a non-playoff team, with the sole exception being Steven Stamkos. However, even Stamkos had Martin St. Louis to feed him the puck; one of the premier play makers in the NHL for the past decade. Kessel’s production could increase dramatically with a true number one centre on a line between him and Lupul─when he returns from injury─and give the Maple Leafs a top line that could compete with the dominant lines in the league.
Getting a first line centre is easier said than done. The Maple Leafs have avoided taking big risks in trades and free agency over the last five years (with the exception of the Kessel deal), which has seen them miss out on the likes of the Sedin Twins, Brad Richards and most recently Rick Nash.
However, the Leafs have a great deal of defensive depth that could net them a young centre with potential if the price is right. Colorado’s Paul Statsny has been rumoured to be one option but with Gabriel Landeskog injured, that may not be an option for some time.
Should the Maple Leafs feel that there is no available number one centre on the trade market, free agency is also an option. Without giving up any young assets, free agency may be the best bet for Maple Leafs management to attain this number one centre. This summer’s free agency sees the likes of three suitable centres that could fill that hole in the roster: play maker Ryan Getzlaf and Ontario-natives Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss.
While Getzlaf could command at least $7 million in the open market, it is an investment Toronto must be willing to pay to make their team stronger down the middle and allow Kessel to reach his offensive potential.
Horton and Weiss would also fit that role and would cost reasonably less at closer to $5 million per year. Also, playing close to home may sway their decision towards the Maple Leafs. The key is that Maple Leafs management must be willing to pay and probably overpay for a talented first line centre if they hope for the current team to become competitive.
Should management elect to pursue and pay the price for a first line centre, they will have to shed some salary and make room on the roster for this player. Because of this, one or both of Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur would be forced out.
Both players are free agents at the end of the year and the Maple Leafs would not have room under the salary cap to pay these players what they would demand. Also, the production of Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin has demonstrated that they are ready to step into these roles and replace Bozak and MacArthur.
If this can be managed, the Maple Leafs should have more than enough room under the $64.3 salary cap to sign a first line centre and re-sign Phil Kessel to an extension at the rate he will deserve. Toronto will be able to roll three offensive lines that are capable of producing at a high rate, making them much more competitive.
There would still be room under the salary cap to determine how to structure the defence, especially with Phaneuf and Komisarek becoming free agents at the end of next year and with the high number of top defence prospects the Maple Leafs have in their system.
It boils down to the new management of the Maple Leafs and how committed they are to the team currently on the ice. Either way, they need to act fast in choosing between rebuilding the current team and paying the price for a true top line centre.
Otherwise, Maple Leafs fans will be doomed to another decade of hopeless mediocrity at the hands of a management team unwilling to pay the price or take the risks necessary in building a contender.