By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 11) — Requesting tolerance from a fan of the Maple Leafs is like asking the Pope for a Communion wafer. Only the sages can tell us which custom is older. That said, it may be more important than ever for followers of the Blue and White to retain (or acquire) sanity.
Surrogate promises are raging about the hockey club being stripped down as one would an amorous girlfriend. These affirmations are coming not from the absurd babble of social media but, rather, by way of trustworthy columnists and TV pundits — people that hockey fans in this city read and watch all the time. Combine that with today’s Buffalo–Winnipeg exchange featuring Tyler Myers and Evander Kane, and Leaf fanatics are liable to go even more squirrelly than usual. But, a word to the wise: The Maple Leafs roster cannot be torn apart like frayed newsprint. Particularly at the top end, where Messers Phaneuf and Kessel reside. Any–such carnage must include at least one — and probably both — of the team’s “franchise” players. Neither of whom are unburdened by an onerous contract nor performing beyond average.
A birdie, however, whispered in my ear today that Nashville could be eyeing Kessel and the remainder of his gargantuan pact. After this season, the Maple Leafs most talented player has six years and $45 million left on the eight–year, $64–million extension he signed with David Nonis on Oct. 13, 2013 (though salary varies, it has an per–season cap hit of $8 million). The deal came with a limited no–trade clause in which Kessel must submit — annually — a list of eight National Hockey League clubs to which he’d sanction a move. We can only speculate whether Nashville is on his current list though Music City USA, and its more tepid hockey environment, would likely appeal to Fast Phil. Undoubtedly, fewer “idiots” in the media hang around the Predators than the Leafs.
FAMILIAR SIGHT: PHIL KESSEL (81) LEAVING THE ICE DEJECTEDLY TUESDAY NIGHT. THE TORONTO WINGER WAS A MINUS–4 IN 5–4 LOSS TO NEW YORK RANGERS AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. LEAFS ARE 4–19–1 IN THEIR PAST 24 GAMES. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
The provocative angle in this scenario is timing. Though it’s widely and sensibly believed that any swap involving Kessel would occur in the summer months, Nashville’s terrific performance this season could dictate a move before the Mar. 2 trade deadline. Particularly if the Maple Leafs are as anxious to begin a tear–down as so many speculate. A number of elements mitigate such a quick transaction — not least of which is the careful, deliberate approach of Predators’ GM David Poile. Only once has Poile made a splash before the trade deadline. That occurred on Feb. 15, 2007, when he acquired future Hall–of–Fame center Peter Forsberg from Philadelphia for forward Scottie Upshall, defenseman Ryan Parent, plus first and third–round draft picks. Like today, the Predators of eight years ago were atop the NHL standings and hoping to make a Stanley Cup run. Instead, Nashville was bounced from the opening playoff round in five games by San Jose.
Less valid of a comparison exists between Forsberg then and Kessel now. While Forsberg had a pair of Stanley Cup rings with Colorado, he was 33 in 2007; broken down physically, and at the tail–end of his brilliant career. He registered 15 points in 17 regular–season games with Nashville; then four points in the five–game playoff rout by San Jose. Back with the Avalanche, Forsberg appeared in just 18 more NHL games before abruptly announcing his retirement in Denver on Feb. 14, 2011.
Though Kessel has performed in recent weeks as if retired, he is 27 and presumably approaching his prime NHL years. He has explosive speed; soft, creative hands and one of the deadliest wrist–shots in the game. What he no longer appears to have is endurance for the Toronto hockey glare with a perennially incompetent team that he simply cannot coax improvement from. At $8 million a year, most would say “Cry me a river, Phil” but the situation isn’t going to change anytime soon. As such, Kessel is flagrantly in need of change and Nashville could be an excellent fit, depending on what the Predators are inclined to relinquish.
If I’m Dave Nonis (or Brendan Shanahan), I ask for nothing less than rookie Filip Forsberg. But, Poile would likely have to consume an alcohol/opiate mixture before agreeing to such a trade. The Leafs might therefore pursue 19–year–old Finnish goaltender Jusse Saros, a fourth–round draft pick of the Predators in 2013. Smallish for a goalie at 5–foot–11, Saros nonetheless has quickness and competitive zeal. After a ragged start, he has played exceptionally well this season for HPK Hameenlinna — compiling a 2.13 goals–against average and a .930 save percentage in 36 games. The Fins disappointed at the recent World Junior Hockey Championships, losing 6–3 to Sweden in the quarterfinals. Saros was 0–2–0 with a 3.03 GAA. But, he remains an elite prospect.
Obviously, additional parts would be included in any such deal.
Phil Kessel of the Nashville Predators.
It has quite a ring to it — in Tennessee and Toronto.
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