With the Toronto Maple Leafs on the verge of missing the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, Leafs Nation is understandably growing upset.
The lengthy playoff drought has also sparked some suggestions from the Toronto punditry over what GM Brian Burke should do to finally reverse his club’s fortunes.
Damien Cox of the Toronto Star created a stir late last week with a column calling on Burke to shop right winger Phil Kessel.
Though Kessel has been the Leafs’ leading scorer since 2009-10 – he is on pace this season for career highs in goals (39) and points (83) and currently ranks among the league’s top five scorers – Cox believes he lacks the necessary leadership, size and combative nature to turn the Leafs into winners.
Cox believes Kessel could struggle playing under new coach Randy Carlyle, who is renowned as a demanding, no-nonsense, defense-minded bench boss.
Mark Zwolinski, Cox’s colleague, followed up by speaking with several NHL insiders and GMs to gauge Kessel’s trade value, determining the winger “might rate as a potential piece” in a trade with Columbus for right winger Rick Nash or could land a first round pick from a club seeking scoring.
However, not every Toronto pundit believes Burke should peddle Kessel.
In a column listing five things Burke should think twice about this summer, Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun put trading Kessel at the top, suggesting it’s too early to buy into the theory Kessel will not play well under Carlyle.
Koshan pointed out Kessel has been offensively consistent this season and top-10 scorers are hard to come by. He also doubted Burke would move Kessel, as it would be seen as an admission that acquiring the winger was a mistake.
Kessel will never blossom into a physical leader like Leafs legends Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, but Koshan makes a good point about his offensive skills and consistency, as well as the difficulty in replacing him.
As for how Kessel will perform under Carlyle, in his first eight games playing for his new coach, he had seven points, including four in three games prior to Monday’s 8-0 beatdown by the Boston Bruins.
Carlyle has also been quick to stick up for his leading scorer, recently telling reporters Kessel was doing everything expected of him.
Swapping Kessel for Nash also isn’t a guarantee of improvement for the Leafs.
Yes, Nash is a local boy and a two-time 40-goal scorer who, at 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, is bigger and more physical than the six-foot, 202-pound, American-born Kessel. He’s also captained Columbus for more than three seasons.
Those attributes undoubtedly have some Toronto pundits and fans drooling over the prospect of rebuilding around Nash.
But it can be convincingly argued Nash has been unable to carry a perennially mediocre Blue Jackets team into playoff contention as superstar leaders are expected to do. There’s little evidence to suggest he would have a more positive impact on the Leafs fortunes than Kessel.
Burke was rumored to have interest in Nash before the trade deadline and could try to land him this summer, but not at the expense of Kessel.
Koshan also called on Burke to resist the idea of including rookie blueliner Jake Gardiner in any package offer for Nash, suggesting Gardiner could thrive under Carlyle’s coaching and become a big part of the team’s turnaround.
If shopping Kessel and Gardiner is out of the question – which it should be – then whom could Burke move and for what return?
The Leafs’ two biggest needs are quality goaltending and depth at center, both of which are significantly lacking in the free agent market.
Burke could shop his 2012 first round pick, but according to James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail, he’s “inclined” to retain that pick, which has the potential to be in the top five.
Having dealt away two first round picks to Boston for Kessel, the last thing most Leafs fans want is for Burke to part with this year’s pick, but that might be what it takes to land a quality goalie or center.
Another option is peddling defenseman Luke Schenn, either on his own or packaged with that first round pick.
Schenn was frequently mentioned in trade rumors this season that linked him to the Philadelphia Flyers and left winger James van Riemsdyk.
Burke may not wish to part with Schenn, but if he retains Kessel and his first round pick, the young blueliner would be his best bargaining chip.
Burke’s critics raise a good point when they claim he’s facing his most critical summer as Leafs GM.
The Maple Leafs have shown little improvement during his tenure and while his bosses have given Burke plenty of leeway, if the club fails to become a playoff contender next season, it could cost him his job.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.