The Toronto Maple Leafs seem intent on getting a good cachet in return for their top scorer, whether it’s at the NHL draft or afterward. And good on them for doing that. Of course they should try to get all they can for Phil Kessel, who could very well go on to another destination where there’s less scrutiny and be a consistent 40-goal scorer and solid contributor.
Yes, the Leafs should try to extract as much as they can, but they should also be prepared, if they’ve decided Kessel no longer has a future in the organization, to let him go for very little. Even next to nothing. The point is, the Leafs will get something for him, but if they’ve decided they’re going to deal him, they should take the best deal available to them, even if they’re not crazy about the return. With a limited list of teams to which Kessel will accept a trade, some of those without the cap space needed to acquire him, the Leafs don’t have near as much leverage as it appears.
Because what they get in return for trading Phil Kessel, and this cannot be stressed enough, is $8 million in cap space for each of the next seven seasons. The Leafs are focused on the future and there are three foundations for a team when it comes to building your roster – prospects, draft picks and cap space. And none of them is more or less important than the others.
People have for too long undervalued salary cap space as the important asset it is. And that’s why the Leafs might not get as much for Kessel as they think they’ll get. If the Leafs want to get out of this contract without taking someone else’s junk – a bad contract that their trading partner wants to unload – or having to eat some of the cap space, they can make the deal, but they’d better be prepared to adjust their expectations.
Get little or nothing for Phil Kessel? Yeah, you have to swallow hard before you make that transaction. But think of it this way. If somehow things go south between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Steven Stamkos this summer – and if speculation that the Lightning might offer Stamkos $100 million over eight years is right, that won’t happen – would you not want to have the flexibility to be able to offer Stamkos a seven-year deal at $12.5 million or $13 million a year? No way you’re able to do that if you keep Kessel or have to take on a significant chunk of his cap commitment.
Depending upon the way you look at it, the Leafs are in no rush to have to trade Kessel. His production during the last half of the season has undoubtedly dropped his trade value. So the Leafs could conceivably start next season with him and wait until December to make a deal. If after the first game he has 20 goals, the Leafs will have a more valuable commodity on their hands.
But then there’s the school of thought that if you’re intent on turning the page and building your team on the foundation of prospects, young players and draft picks, does it not make sense to make the break with Kessel sooner rather than later? And what if Kessel plays those first 30 games and has only seven goals instead? That would put the Leafs in an even less enviable position than they are now.
Rick Nash had six years remaining on his deal with a $7.8 million cap hit when the New York Rangers acquired him for three roster players and a first-round pick, so that might be the benchmark the Leafs are seeking in a trade. Good luck with that. It should be remembered that the Rangers basically didn’t take on any salary because of the players they were sending to Columbus. And that deal was made at a time when teams could not retain salaries on their deals. The rules of engagement have changed.
So if the Leafs know they’re going to trade Kessel, they shouldn’t be surprised if teams aren’t eager to give up much at all in return. Except for that little matter of $8 million in cap space.