The NHL trade deadline day came and went with none of the Toronto Maple Leafs' big stars getting dealt. Despite anticipation by some pundits suggesting Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak or Joffrey Lupul would be traded, the four will finish this season with the Leafs.
It was for lack of trying on GM Dave Nonis' part. In the hours leading up to the 3 PM ET deadline, there were reports Nonis was in talks with Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland regarding a possible deal for the 29-year-old Phaneuf.
Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos claims one reason the deal fell through was the Leafs sought highly-touted Wings prospect forward Anthony Mantha as part of the return. Holland repeatedly made it clear throughout this season none of his top prospects or good young roster players were available. It's not surprising he balked at Nonis' request for Mantha.
Another apparent deal breaker was Holland wanted the Leafs to take oft-injured center Stephen Weiss in the deal. Weiss, 31, has three years remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $4.9 million. In actual salary, he'll earn $6 million in 2015-16 and 2016-17 before dropping to $4 million in 2017-18.
That request reflects the difficulty of trying to move Phaneuf's $7-million per season cap hit through 2020-21. The Leafs must either pick up part of the blueliner's salary, or take back a toxic contract in the return.
While Phaneuf's future in Toronto remains in doubt, the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno reports sources saying Kessel, 28, could still be a Leaf next season. DiManno claims the winger's offensive skills make him worthwhile retaining, adding management could consider “changing the elements” around him with a core shakeup.
Still, DiManno also reports the Leafs are prepared to part with any of its roster players (except for young defenseman Morgan Rielly) at the right price. That includes pending restricted free agent center Nazem Kadri and goalie Jonathan Bernier, who has yet to establish himself as a reliable starter.
During his post-deadline press conference, Nonis pointed out high-priced talent tends to move in the summer. Finding off-season takers for Phaneuf, Kessel, Bozak and Lupul won't be easy. The Globe and Mail's James Mirtle writes questions have been raised about Lupul's health, Phaneuf's defensive play, Bozak's offensive game away from Kessel and the latter's performance this season.
Nonis, with the help of Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, pulled off a miraculous deal by shipping David Clarkson's supposedly untradeable contract to the Jackets for the likely-to-never-play-again Nathan Horton. Leafs fans are hoping Nonis has another trick or two up his sleeve this summer by finding a willing trade partner for at least one of those expensive players.
Maybe the Red Wings decide to circle back to Phaneuf in the offseason. Perhaps he gets shipped to the Los Angeles Kings for Mike Richard's bad contract. Maybe the Vancouver Canucks revisit their rumored interest in Bozak. Possibly the Montreal Canadiens take another look at Lupul. Maybe the Florida Panthers come calling for Kessel.
As for Kadri and Bernier, their futures in Toronto will be determined by their contract negotiations. Both have arbitration rights this summer. If Leafs management feels this could get messy, both players could be peddled during the NHL Draft weekend in June.
It's also uncertain if Nonis will be sitting in the GM's chair after this season. While he's received kudos for the Clarkson trade and the returns in his other February deals, he played a part in building this roster, both as an assistant for former GM Brian Burke and as his successor. Will he be given the opportunity to engineer the Leafs' rebuild?
With the trade deadline in the past and the regular-season schedule entering its final weeks, the questions surrounding the Leafs will carry over into the off-season. That means plenty of grist for the rumor mill in the months to come.