By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 26) — While some Toronto media are tossing out such terms as “franchise–altering” to characterize the weekend, it’s probably wise to remember your Maple Leafs are at the very beginning of their construction process. Yes, if the Leafs — while in Sunrise, Fla. and without a full–time general manager — are able to trade Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Tyler Bozak while garnering at least one other first–round draft pick, the franchise will have been “altered.” And, pigs will be seen flying in clusters over top the BB&T Center toward the Everglades.
Deep breathe, Toronto hockey fans.
The draft gathering at the swamp does represent a watershed moment for the Brendan Shanahan regime — now thoroughly devoid of the hockey minds that preceded it. The Leafs are going to select a player at No. 4 that scouts predict will pair with Morgan Rielly as prime bricks of the foundation — a jackpot richly earned throughout the cataclysmic failure of last season. If that is all the club can accomplish while in Florida, and despite the howls of discontent from amp’d–up followers, it will have been a fruitful weekend. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor are the Maple Leafs going to be leveled and remodeled in 48 hours. Try not to adjudicate the Shanahan administration solely on its first body of work.
For as long as most of us can remember, the Leafs have engaged in a sprint — only to wobble and capsize many meters from the finish–line. The club has now chosen, wisely, to enter a marathon. Its expectant fans have no choice but to fall in behind. As would any capable executive, Shanahan is liberally using reporters to impart his message, primarily with respect to Kessel. I was on the receiving end of such verbiage innumerable times while covering the Maple Leafs for The FAN–590 — from such luminaries as Pat Burns, Pat Quinn (God rest their souls) and Brian Burke. And, I fondly remember every darned moment.
BRENDAN SHANAHAN IS PONDERING HIS MOVES THIS WEEKEND IN FLORIDA, BUT DO NOT EXPECT HIM TO TRADE PHIL KESSEL BY SATURDAY AFTERNOON. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
“There’s been strong interest in not just Phil but in several of our players,” insisted Shanahan. “I won’t say one way or the other who’s going to be around and who won’t. It’s too early. All I can say is when you have a guy like (Kessel) who is such a natural goal–scorer in the prime of his career, everyone wants goal scoring… he’s a great player; a great goal–scorer and a great finisher. So there’s been a lot of interest.”
Why, it’s as if last season never happened.
Is ol’ Shanny trying to unload the player that arrived at camp out of shape and packed it in just after the New Year? A player so entirely devoid of intangibles that no contending team could possibly build around? Or is he hyping Alex Ovechkin? Maybe Steven Stamkos? Given Brendan’s flowery prattle in Fort Lauderdale, one would hardly know. It is, however, his job to exaggerate sale items; Kessel prime among them. After all, Shanahan, in only his second year as a team executive, is, by far, the most experienced NHL hand among Toronto decision–makers.
Try to envision acting GM Kyle Dubas — 1½ years old in 1988 when Glen Sather won his last of four Stanley Cups as coach in Edmonton — doing business today with the curmudgeonly 72–year–old boss of the New York Rangers. This isn’t to minimize Dubas, who is universally considered a rising star in hockey management. It’s just that even the greenest NHL personnel are wise to what Kessel cannot do, and to the money and cap space allotted to him for the next seven years (to Shanahan’s credit, he did mention the contract obstacle — telling media in Florida, “obviously, in a cap world, it’s not as easy to fit that player in as it used to be”).
Ultimately, the Leafs will trade Kessel, for he does not figure in the long–range plan of Mike Babcock. Same with Bozak. Perhaps not as much with Phaneuf. Whatever the case, to expect a mega–contract deal involving Kessel this weekend — and to be accordingly miffed if it doesn’t happen — is pure folly. Though Shanahan makes it sound as if the Leafs can pick and choose to their delight, Kessel does have a limited no–movement clause and most of the eight teams on his “go–to” list are already capped out. So, this complicated process won’t likely come to fruition the first time all NHL execs are in the same building.
Nor does it have to.
As such, perhaps try Yoga this weekend, Leaf fans, or maybe some meditation. Anything to keep the brain–waves steady and the blood–pressure in check. Summer has only just begun.
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