Many Leaf fans seem to have had enough of the teams losing ways. Is the time right to trade superstar Phil Kessel and start over?
Toronto - January 17, 2015 - Over the duration of the Leafs road trip through California, the rhetoric surrounding the Leafs’ core players has gotten, well hostile. The ‘trade Kessel’ and ‘Phaneuf is a pylon’ talk has grown exponentially since Carlyle’s firing, as this team continues to be perceived as a failed group. That being said, substantial moves will be made before the deadline. However this will have to do mostly with the horrendous cap situation currently staring Leafs management in the face. I won’t dare say that Phaneuf won’t be moved. He might, but I think there are at least two other Leafs’ defenceman who are more likely to be moved. One thing I am willing to say is the Leafs’ will not trade Kessel, or at least they shouldn’t.
Since Phil ‘The Thrill’ Kessel came in to the league, only 3 players have more points than him. He has led the Leafs in scoring every year he has been on the team, and since stepping on to the ice for the Leafs, he has not missed a game. That’s 409 consecutive games, set to become 410 tonight against the St. Louis Blues. That is elite talent. Elite. If Kessel stays in Toronto for the his entire career, he could surpass legendary Leafs centre, and Hall of Famer Mats Sundin for all time points record in Toronto. Kessel’s elite talent is rare, too rare to trade for anything less than more elite talent. If you cannot win with elite talent on your team, there are so many other problems you need to deal with as a team before you discuss trading a player of Kessel’s calibur. The only way a Kessel trade makes a single iota of sense is if Shea Weber or Drew Doughty is coming back in return. You don’t trade Kessel for a work in progress or even Max Domi. That’s just idiotic.
Now Dion. I like Dion, I like him as the captain, which all things considered is a political position in Toronto. I like him as a player, perhaps not the Leafs’ 1A defenceman, but a solid 1B or 2A. He’s looked far better this year than last, a lot of which I believe is the result of Franson taking the next step in his game. Dion’s also coming up on 30 years old, and has a big, yet deserved cap hit. A lot of people have a problem with Dion’s contract but forget that had the Leafs let him walk last summer, he would have signed for at least $8 million with another team. That being said the Leafs defence core is young, and it might be better to shed Dion’s cap hit and reinvest in Franson or Bernier’s contract. If Dion gets traded the return has to be good. Trading Dion is not mandatory, or even something Leafs management needs to actively try to do. If the deal is right for Phaneuf, pull the trigger. Otherwise I think there are other defenceman better suited to moving.
The first is Cody Franson. The New York Rangers are reportedly close to extending defenceman Marc Staal’s contract with a 6 year, $5.7 million dollar contract. With Cody Franson being a UFA at season’s end, Staal’s deal more or less sets the market value for Franson. With Franson being worth that kind of money, it’s almost impossible for the Leafs to re-sign him this year, and if they don’t trade him before the deadline, he’ll walk and the Leafs’ get nothing for him. That being said Franson will have trade value, despite his UFA status. Trading Franson should net the Leafs a valuable player. In my last article I mentioned that Colorado needs to move Ryan O’Reilly for a defenceman. Franson for O’Reilly could be a deal that works out for both teams. Whatever the return may be for Franson, they have to be able to play immediately. Now is not the time to load up on prospects.
The second defenceman that could be moved would be Jake Gardiner, which is too bad. Gardiner has had a rough year in Toronto, which increasingly seems to be Randy Carlyle’s fault, as Gardiner as looked much better under Horachek. Minus 20 seconds against San Jose Thursday night. Gardiner has a lot of potential, but his time in Toronto cannot have been overly enjoyable for the 24 year old. Consistently the centre of trade rumours and intense scrutiny, it may be time for a change of scenery. I remember reading that it was believed that Randy Carlyle was so hard on Gardiner because Jake reminded the former bench boss of himself. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that after the Leafs trade Gardiner, he wins the Norris trophy like Carlyle did back in his playing days. If Gardiner does get traded, the Leafs will get a solid return and have decent depth in their defensive prospects with players like Stuart Percy, Peter Granberg and of course Morgan Rielly.
More than anything at this point, I expect the Leafs top 6 forwards to be overhauled leading up to the deadline. This does not mean trading Kessel, but for sure Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, possibly James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri as well. Lupul and Bozak have to go. They’re old, not producing and have sizable cap hits that need to be moved. People who have been critical of Kessel forget that he is playing with an undrafted centre, who can’t play defence and at even strength simply does not help puck possession. That being said, I expect Bozak and Kessel to remain together as it will help Bozak’s trade value. Furthermore Lupul and Bozak are desirable pieces for most teams, who may want to bolster their second line.
JvR and Kadri are a different story. Kadri is similar to Gardiner, in the respect where I unfortunately think it’s just not going to work out in Toronto for him. He’s a great player, he deserves top line minutes and is an upgrade over Bozak for sure, but nobody in Leafs management seems keen on giving him a shot. Van Riemsdyk is an attractive trade target for a lot of teams who need a power winger. He has a favourable contract and is very cheap for a top 6 winger. I would prefer the Leafs keep a good contract on the books like JvR, as it makes up for David Clarkson’s nearly impossible to move contract. What will happen to the Leafs top 6 is unclear, but it’s a safe bet that next October it will look very different than it does now.
Finally, a moment to mourn goaltender James Reimer, who I can’t see being with the team come season’s end. Reimer dragged this team into the playoffs a few years ago, and somehow got them to game 7 against the Bruins. He did everything a goalie can do to earn a chance to be the number one goaltender, and he never got the chance. That offseason, the Leafs acquired Bernier and it’s been his job ever since. Reimer will be a starting goalie somewhere in the NHL, but it won’t be Toronto. The Leafs cannot afford a $2.3 million dollar a year backup. Few teams can. Reimer won’t get the praise he deserves until Chris Gibson is starting the second half of back to backs, and can’t stop 43 shots with an exhausted team in front of him.
Do I think it’s time to blow up the Leafs? No. Do I think a lot of moves will happen? Yes, because they have to. This is a ‘re-tooling’ year. Large pieces of the supporting cast will be moved, mostly because age and salary dictate they have to. If the Leafs’ are smart, they’ll attempt to acquire pieces that align themselves with the progression of players like Morgan Rielly. Not prospects, but players in the league, who can play now but will hit their prime in 2-3 years time. If the Leafs can do that, then they’ll have a young core of players along with Kessel’s elite scoring and Bernier’s solid play in net. The Leafs’ are not a bad team, they just need to find some key pieces. The Leafs next game is Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues at 7pm EST.
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