Kessel versus Phaneuf

With their new supposed scorched earth approach this summer and the “Shanaplan” set to take action over the next few years, most of the discussion around the Leafs since the end of this past season has been focusing on two easy targets: the team’s highest-paid forward and highest-paid defenseman. 

At times it’s seemed a matter of course both Kessel and Phaneuf will – or at least should be – moved (perhaps even in desperation) to bring the team closer to a clean slate, both roster and cap-wise, though it did cool for a minute there – the Babcock effect I guess. But no matter how the rumor mill spins, to pin Kessel and Phaneuf as two similar pieces that need to be shipped out is a mistake, and this definitely shouldn’t be looked at as a “both or none” type of scenario. 

First off, I’ll admit I believe the optics of keeping both are bad. The team has been a wreck for years and it’s tough to sell rebuilding and pain if fans are paying to see the same players again. It’s just not a good look, and this management group needs act on it. But keeping one of these guys sort of makes sense, and you can probably guess who. It’s the one who’s more valuable now and will still be more valuable six years from now.

Here’s something I really enjoyed from Corey Pronman’s recent piece about rebuilding the Leafs, where he talks about young players pushing for top duties on the team in the coming years.

…between the prospects currently in the organization and the draft picks they have this season (and I’ll throw 2012 fifth overall pick Morgan Rielly into that mix), they need at least three of these assets to become true high-end NHL players….if those young players hit — and become top-of-the-lineup players — it will slide the overpaid veterans down the lineup into proper slots, therefore alleviating some of the cap issues the team currently faces.

Personally I think Kessel can fit into that model a lot better than Phaneuf, and here’s why: Kessel is the best forward on this team by a fair margin, and perhaps the only one outside Kadri in the forward group who I’d argue isn’t a complimentary player. He’s been an elite winger, even top-three on the planet for solid stretches over the last few seasons, and it’s tough to imagine him sliding beyond being a top six forward as he approaches the end of his contract. 

Here’s a quick look at a great piece by Eric Tulsky on how goal-scorers tend to decline with age:


As Tulsky mentions, passers seem to age better than scorers, which at first doesn’t sound so great for a player like Kessel. If he’s following the path laid out above, he’s already well into his prime and his scoring could start to hit the skids over the next few years, most dangerously in that 33-34 range where you can see it dip in the 65-75% area. But luckily that’s about where his contract ends. 

At peak Kessel been a 35-goal-scorer, by contract’s end he could be in the 25 range. But I think that’s easy to live with. [Yes, I’m aware he scored only 25 this past season, but that happens. Ryan Getzlaf had 57 points in 2011-12 and people were calling for his retirement]. 

It should also be noted Kessel’s been saddled with Bozak for the majority of his time in Toronto, so a true center over the next few years (assuming the Leafs ever get one) might even soften the blow. Kessel is an underrated distributor as well, something he’s improved on since getting to Toronto, and as you can see from the graph his slide shouldn’t be as stark in that regard. Let’s say his assist rate dips to 85% of his peak and the goal-scoring goes to 70%, that’s still a fairly dangerous scorer six years from now – basically a 25-30-55 guy.

Phaneuf on the other hand may already be the third best defenceman on a club that hasn’t cleared the puck out of its own end in about five years, and some have even made the case he was, at most, fourth on the depth chart when Cody Franson was in the fold. The eye test hasn’t been kind to him, as he isn’t particularly mobile (in a game requiring more and more mobility) and doesn’t play a smooth game like Kessel or Rielly, for example. He’s got some tough miles on him.


Now, it isn’t all bad. Phaneuf’s scoring rate over the last three years including the lockout-shortened season is actually 0.44 points-per-game, which translates to 36 points over an 82-game season, so his boxcars are still somewhat impressive (though nowhere near his early years with the Flames). 

But for a guy whose defensive play has been criticized so much, 7-million is a lot to pay for 36 points and not much else. Maybe his possession game has been hurt by his quality of teammates or coaching systems, but as it was pointed out in the link to Burtch’s article above, others are playing under the same system and outperforming him, so I have a tough time buying into that. Coaching was a problem, and it won’t be going forward, but elevating play under Babcock should apply to all the Leafs, so Phaneuf is unlikely to improve his performance relative to his peers. At 30, he isn’t likely to take much of a step forward as a possession-driver, and the Leafs can’t continue to pay to find out if he can.

Again, from Tulsky, in his look at how defenseman age with regards to driving possession:


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to run Phaneuf out of town, I just believe if one or both of these players has to go, he needs to be the priority. It’s difficult to predict him being an effective player from here on out, and he’s simply older. And yes, I know, the go-to question about moving Phaneuf often becomes “Well, who’s going to take those minutes?” But for a team nowhere near contention, the answer should be someone who isn’t 30 and making a dump truck full of money.

In the battle of who stays and who goes between Kessel and Phaneuf, it just seems Kessel is easier to get a read on in terms of how he can fit into the plan. If both go, I’m fine with it, and it’s sounding more like that will be the case. But I think Kessel should maybe be given a longer look. Both players will see their play fall off, but Phaneuf is further down that road, and his baseline wasn’t as good to begin with.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Great comparison with Getzlaf. Sure Kessel isn’t the monster that Getzlaf can be but he is an elite scorer. A lot of people forget how badly Getzlaf dipped during the 12/13 season.

    The biggest problem with Kessel is that he’s the center of attention on this team. They’ve done a good job to keep a letter off his jersey but he still stands out bc he’s way better than any other player.

    If he was playing on a team with 2 or 3 elite guys you could excuse his streaky play and be happy that he’ll probably put up 60-80 pts for the next 5 years.

    I agree, move Phaneuf then move Kessel. But if we have to keep one of them for longer, Kessel is fine.

  • Jeremy Ian

    This is a case where the optics and the logic overlap. They should be traded for future value.

    The thing is, the case you are making for trading Phaneuf is also why he’s likely to yield less than trading Kessel.

    Anyway, with the way UFA contracts are going to soar, both of them with look reasonable for a team that wants players in their prime.

  • FlareKnight

    Nope, move them both out.

    No matter the positives and skills of both, they aren’t going to fit going forward. This isn’t a couple year re-tool. As good as Kessel is today, we’re asking how good he’ll be years down the road and how many years he’ll still have when the Leafs get to being competitive.

    Trade them both and start fresh. I don’t care who you move out first, but both have to go.

  • silentbob

    Completely disagree on keeping Kessel. First, he is complimentary player, the Leafs just don’t have anyone for him to compliment.

    Second, he will be 28 when next season starts, this team will be rebuilding for the next 3-5 years and is probably another 3 or more years away from being a contending team. Kessel will be well past his prime by then (if he hasn’t already started to regress). Kessel does not bring to the table the elements that can/would keep a forward valuable to his team past his prime production years.

    Third, even if Kessel doesn’t regress that much and at 32-33-34 he is a 25/30/55 player, that is when this team should A) be pushing to be competitive and B) A lot of the young guys they currently have and will add the next years will be looking for the 2nd and 3rd contracts, and being stuck paying 8 million for 55 points from a 1 dimensional player who brings nothing else to the table WILL be a problem. And good luck trading him then.

    Fourth, Kessel isn’t a leader or a good role model. He does things differently and isn’t the kind of player you want around young, impressionable, developing players. There was an article a couple months ago that mentioned the bad influence he has been on Bozak (Bozak leaves practice with him, treats the media the same way, took the injury maintence days off like Kessel etc…), you don’t want Nylander, Brown, Percy and others picking up those habits too.

    Fifth, by hiring Babcock Shanahan has made a statement about how he wants the Leafs to play hockey, and its not a Phil Kessel friendly style of game.

    Trading Kessel should be the #1 priority for the Leafs right now.

  • FlareKnight

    First off, well written article! It does bring a well throughout point IF you had to keep one of them. If the situation they are in now is to get rid of them and get the “most” back from them, why would you keep one player to only depreciate in value. I personally think they should try and get the most for them now, to maximize there value (sure they could and probably will have better seasons elsewhere but we do need some change)

    Also, when whom ever said that Leafs will be contending in 3-5 years, I’d assume it would be 5 or later. Still at that time 8 million on the cap would be a big hit and could very well cause some problems down the road

  • STAN

    Numerous GMs, in consultation with their head coaches and marketing folks, are salivating at getting Kessel.

    Why? He is one of a handful of NHL players that can electrify an arena with a laser-like wrist shot or pinpoint pass.

    For those reasons I think several markets that desperately need that ‘star’ power to lure more folks into their arenas (see Florida and Arizona) will pay Shanahan a very nice return for his services. No retained salary.

    Phaneuf? Not so much.

    Anyone with eyes can see The Pylon has been on a steady and troubling decline since his first three seasons in Calgary.

  • STAN

    This was certainly an insightful article. It has generated some interesting responses as well.

    Aside from the issue of getting the most back if one of the Leafs players was traded, one additional point worth mentioning is that Phaneuf has not been effective defensively over the past 2 to 3 years, and his skating is really mediocre. In fact, he was perhaps the Leafs 3rd or 4th best offensive defenceman this past year, but played virtually every power play. His ice time has detracted from the potential development of such future solid players as Reilly and Gardiner.

    In addition, if the Leafs were so close to trading him to Detroit this past trade dead-line, what would be the rationale for keeping him in Toronto for the next 6 years? It would be another flip-flop in the managerial outlook for the Leafs by staying with him, I suggest.

  • Gary Empey

    If Phaneuf and Kessel are a bad as most people here seem to think then what do you expect in return in a trade.
    If you are correct in your assessment then a second or third round pick along with an AHL prospect is likely your return. Unless you wait until the trade deadline and hope some team will overpay.

  • silentbob

    wow, lot’s of well-written comments today. I just think that the discussion should start with why two teams should trade players. I don’t think this article started from that point. It was more from the point of a used car salesman. Obviously lots of teams see the value of these two players, even of the writer doesn’t. Maybe he’s paid by Edmonton and he wants to drive the price down Kessel needs to be traded because no center is coming here to play with him. The defence is like swiss cheese. His talents are wasted. This current team is going nowhere, and needs to go in a new direction. Babcock wants players that can contribute in more than one way. Lots of teams have elite centers that need Kessel, Some have the cap space, some have the assets to give to Toronto. One asset is not just a “1st round” pick, but a player in the top 10. I wouldn’t trade him for any forward after the top 4. I would only trade for one defenceman after the top two. If Hanifin is there at 4, take him. If not, with Florida’s 11th the other defencmen with elite potential is still there, but he’s not still there at 16th, actually, whether or not the Leafs get Hanifin, Kessel is traded to Florida for the 11th and Huberdeau etc., and Phaneuf to Edmonton for the 16th, etc, as a center ‘coach’s dream’ is still available.

  • walkingman11

    People are over anayzing this. They both have to go simply because it’s time. The reason Babcock signed for 8 yrs, and the reason he said at the press conference ‘ we need to get Hunter some draft picks’ is because this is a true rebuild.
    The old guard has to go.

    • walkingman11

      Hey thehippylettucenation

      Put away your bongs and forget about turning Kessel and Paneuf into gobs of high draft picks.

      With the absurd $ and term of their contracts Leafs are going to have eat $4-5M/yr of cap between the two contracts just to get any sane teams to consider taking these guys.

  • walkingman11

    Rumour has it:

    Phaneuf going to Edmonton Oilers for Martin Marincin and 3rd round pick in 2016.

    Are you kidding me. That’s a huge overpay for Neon Dion Phaneuf. He should on be worth a 4th or 5th round pick only. Maximum.