Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf should no longer be considered among the Maple Leafs’ untouchable assets, but don’t expect the two highest profile players on the Maple Leafs to be dealt prior to the March 2 NHL trade deadline.
Both Phaneuf and Kessel are expensive pieces attached to long-term deals, and they both possess limited no-trade clauses. It’s clear that any potential trade involving the cornerstone pieces of Brian Burke’s flawed Maple Leafs teams would be an extremely complicated transaction, which makes it likely that they’ll at least finish up the season in Toronto.
Here’s how McKenzie fleshed out Toronto’s trade posture and the level of interest in Phaneuf and Kessel during an appearance on TSN 1040 on Tuesday morning:
“Probably,” McKenzie began, when asked if Phaneuf and Kessel would remain Maple Leafs beyond the trade deadline. “We don’t know what the cap is going to be next year (and) that’s put a real chill on the trade marketplace for anything other than guys who have expiring contracts – the so-called rentals.”
The Leafs are getting some calls on Phaneuf and Kessel, probably more on Phaneuf right now than Kessel. I think there’s trade options there if the leafs want to do it, but I don’t think there’s anything that jumps out at them at this point, and the market for those trades would expand greatly in the summer.
One of the problems the Leafs run into right now is that they are clearly dealing from a position of weakness. Their season has gone horribly wrong, the players that they’re trading are at their low value mark – this is selling low if you’re going to move Phaneuf and Kessel – and because of their contracts, the teams that are interested in them are trying to make soft deals. (Teams with interest) are trying to say:
“Well we’re not going to give you too much back, but you’ll be happy with that because you’ll get cap space and lose these contracts. So therefore your return is just getting cap space and not getting payers and prospects of any note,” and that’s not really want the Leafs want to do here.
The suggestion that McKenzie concludes with is that the Maple Leafs are hoping that several potential suitors go out in the first-round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, or narrowly miss, and begin to look to Phaneuf and Kessel as options to significantly upgrade their core group in the offseason.
Looking through some of Nonis’ recent statements regarding his club’s trade posture, specifically in regards to Phaneuf and Kessel’s respective futures in blue and white, it seems that McKenzie’s input legitimately serves as useful context.
“All the players that we have right now… We don’t have anyone that we’d say we would never move. You have to be open to moving players and Phil isn’t any different,” Nonis said during an appearance on TSN 1050 on Monday.
“There is not a fire sale for Phil Kessel or anyone else on our team,” Nonis added a bit later on, perhaps staking out his club’s positioning and attempting to push back against the perception that the club isn’t dealing from a position of strength.
Whether it’s a fire sale or a more gradual rebuilding process that the Maple Leafs are set to undergo, it would seem that Phaneuf and Kessel are available enough that Nonis is willing to cop to discussing their names with interested teams.
“I’ve had teams call on both of them,” Nonis said on Monday. “These aren’t guys that the rest of the league looks at and says well we don’t want any part of them, that’s not the case at all.
“Phil is a good player, he’s a top goal scorer in the league and Dion plays a lot of minutes and D that play that many minutes are hard to find.”
The obvious downside for the Maple Leafs in retaining Phaneuf and Kessel beyond the NHL trade deadline is that they’ll help the club win an inconvenient number of games, further diminishing the Leafs’ long-shot odds of winning the Connor McDavid lottery. If it’s a choice between that and accepting a ‘soft deal’ though, then that isn’t much of a choice at all.
We’ve watched teams teardown their rosters in the recent past, and even when the process is successful (like in Pittsburgh and Chicago), it can sometimes take a decade for a franchise to enter the larval, perpetual lottery team stage of their rebuilding cycle before reemerging as a competitive butterfly.
We’ve also seen clubs rebuild more quickly by tenaciously and patiently accumulating future assets while reconstructing their rosters around current core players and helpful veterans (like in Calgary, Tampa Bay and Nashville). What route the Maple Leafs will pursue under Brendan Shanahan’s watch remains to be seen.
Which brings us back to what we discussed on Monday. The trades of Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli signalled something significant. The deal suggested that this club is looking years down the road, and has likely given up on bolstering their current core group for a run at respectability in the medium-term.
Moving star players like Kessel and Phaneuf is a possible – even likely – byproduct of this new outlook, but dramatic upheaval in the near-term still seems farfetched.