Leafs Fishing Before They Cut Bait

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 20) — So, answer me this, hockey fans: Why wouldn’t the Toronto Maple Leafs aim for the heavens with Phil Kessel? The 2014–15 National Hockey League season just ended and we are roughly three months from the start of training camp — reasonable time for the club to gauge interest in the (usually) high–scoring winger. There isn’t a competent poker player on Earth that shows his hand at the beginning.

As such, it is understandable that Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has apparently priced Kessel as one would a rare antique. “Two hockey executives from rival teams said that over the past several weeks, the Leafs have a price for Kessel that is way, way too high. So the executives are staying away until it comes down,” reported Pierre LeBrun of ESPN/TSN. “They’re going to have to eat more of his salary than they think right now,” said one of the rival executives.

Kessel’s limited no–trade clause allows him to provide the Maple Leafs a menu of eight opposing teams to which he would sanction a move. According to TSN, that list currently includes Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But, many hockey people will tell you such a document isn’t worth the paper it’s written on; that an unwanted player whose team has negotiated a tentative swap will recognize the futility of thwarting the transaction. This rings particularly true when examining Kessel’s apparent inventory. Though the Maple Leafs are intent on dissolving their failed nucleus (at least one summer too late), it is unlikely the club would trade Kessel to an elite rival within the Eastern Conference (New York or Pittsburgh), and virtually impossible to comprehend a trade within the Northeast Division (Montreal or Boston).

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RIVAL TEAMS ARE APPARENTLY SCOFFING AT THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS FOR THEIR EARLY TRADE DEMANDS INVOLVING PHIL KESSEL. TORONTO SUN PHOTO

Toronto will presumably demand a first–round draft choice as part of any deal for Kessel, so why would the Leafs potentially strengthen the Flyers? The farther north Philadelphia ascends, the weaker the draft pick becomes. Same applies to Western teams on the list. Chicago and Los Angeles have alternated Stanley Cup victories the past four springs and Minnesota finished 12th overall last season with 100 points. It is doubtful any of these character–rich teams would even want Kessel… unless the Leafs are intent on markedly reducing their financial burden.

An adjunct to the Collective Bargaining Agreement enables a club to retain up to half a player’s salary and cap space in a trade (as averaged out during each year of the contract). A maximum three players at any time can be included in this process, but a team’s total “retained salary” commitment in any given year cannot exceed 15 percent of the NHL cap figure (or $10.35 million of $69 million in 2014–15). So, the Leafs could have “eaten” up to $4 million in cap space and $5 million of Kessel’s pay were he traded last season. The cap figure is expected to rise marginally in 2015–16 — perhaps three percent — to just more than $71 million per team, boosting the 15% salary retention to $10.66 million. Kessel’s haul will again be $10 million, before it drops to $9 million; $7 million and $6 million (in two–year increments) through 2021–22.

Clearly, the Maple Leafs will have to retain a portion of Kessel’s contract with a dealing partner — at the moment, and as Pierre LeBrun reported, too big a portion for their desire based on the asking price. Toronto will also need to retain considerable salary in a trade involving Dion Phaneuf, and smaller portions if such overpriced vets as Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak can be moved (again, there’s a limit of three players at a time). In any circumstance, the Leafs can deploy their financial might, but the club must be careful when frittering away valuable cap space.

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THE MAPLE LEAFS WILL ALMOST SURELY HAVE TO RETAIN SALARY IN ANY TRADE THAT INVOLVES OFT–INJURED VETERAN JOFFREY LUPUL.

Perhaps I’m underestimating what the Maple Leafs might be able to fetch for Kessel, though I doubt it. There is minimal risk to the club aiming unreasonably in the embryonic stage of the off–season, but time does tend to close in rather quickly in the salary cap era. The NHL draft occurs less than two weeks after the Stanley Cup is raised and the July 1st free agent market opens immediately thereafter. By the middle of July, many teams have their payrolls in order for the following season. The task of moving a $10 million player becomes exponentially difficult.

Ultimately, it will hinge on how determined the Maple Leafs are to trade at least one of Kessel or Phaneuf. I believe the club is hell–bent on it, for there’s no way the Blue and White can turn even a figurative corner without doing so. Mike Babcock didn’t come here from Detroit to coach the drab, uninspired group that humiliated the franchise last season — even for the $16 million he’ll earn in his first two years behind the bench. That’s why I contend the asking price for Kessel, in particular, will drop. And that Kessel may be urged to slightly modify his no–trade list.

From what I’ve been told, we should not minimize how fundamentally the Leafs wish to change, or their burning desire to accumulate high–to–medium–range draft picks. In trade talk for Kessel, there will be no inclination to acquire a player of similar ability. Shanahan and Co. have eyes sharpened on three and four years down the line — a plan that was favorably (and prudently) sold to the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. The plan cannot be executed by retaining the contracts of Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul, Bozak and maybe even James van Riemsdyk.

Save for young defenceman Morgan Rielly, no player should be untouchable on a team that performed so dreadfully last season.

RE–BRANDING BERGER BYTES

This website has been a labor of love for the past four years and I thank those that have so frequently visited. But, it’s now time to freshen things up with a new look and a different name. In the next few weeks, BERGERBYTES.CA will be re–branded under the title BETWEENTHEPOSTS.CA — as per the trademarks, below. Insiteful Solutions of Markham, Ont. is re–designing the layout with the WordPress format I’ve used since December 2011. I look forward to incorporating some different blog elements and telling you about them.   

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