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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leafs Trade Kessel in Disappointing Deal

The Maple Leafs kicked off their rebuild by trading star winger Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a package of prospects and picks, finally ending the contentious Phil Kessel era in Toronto.

In exchange for Kessel, who goes to Pittsburgh along with Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon, and a 2016 2nd round pick, the Leafs received Kasperi Kapanen (2014 1st round pick), Scott Harrington (2011 2nd round pick), veteran Nick Spaling, and a 2016 1st round pick and 3rd round pick. The Leafs also agreed to pick up 15% of Kessel's salary, totalling $1.2 million a season.

It's an underwhelming return for a player who has scored more points than only five players since 2011. An optimist might look at the trade as bringing in two 1st round picks (2016 and Kapanen), a 2nd round pick (Harrington), and a 3rd round pick, but none of the pieces are elite (and the 2016 1st rounder is lottery protected so it's going to be in the latter half of the draft). It's hard not to feel disappointed.

In reality, the Leafs were never going to hit a grand slam home run trading Kessel. The Blue Jackets couldn't when they traded Rick Nash, and he didn't undergo the beating Kessel has taken from the Toronto media. That's because teams just don't give up young, elite talent. Nashville wasn't giving up someone like Seth Jones and New York wasn't giving up Ryan Strome. And although many understood young NHLers were off the table, high-end NHL-ready prospects might even more valuable as teams have cost-controlled assets that can produce on the cheap. Even if Kessel is a better player —and heading into the decline portion of his career that's not a given for long—having a young player on a cheap contract is crucial in the salary cap era.

Having the Leafs retain salary and fail to receive 2012 8th overall pick Derrick Pouliot is disappointing, but both were deal-breakers for Pittsburgh, and without a real bidding war between teams, it sounds like the Leafs did the best they could. The Leafs were open to taking back bad contracts, and Chris Kunitz and Rob Scuderi certainly qualify in that category, but both had the Leafs on the list of teams they would not accept in a trade.

Perhaps Toronto could have extracted more by waiting out the market and letting other teams get desperate, but they ran the risk of having the few teams with enough cap space move on to other targets and be stuck with Kessel. Of course, for such a productive player that shouldn't be a big issue, but it also means one year closer to Kessel's decline, and although it's possible Kessel could have rebounded under Mike Babcock, it's also entirely possible that with such a sub-par lineup around him the only way Kessel could boost his production was in a run-and-gun style which is definitely not happening.

The Leafs decided, instead, to get it done and move forward with their rebuild.

Kapanen now becomes the Leafs third best prospect behind William Nylander and Mitch Marner. He has top-six potential, although his probable ceiling is more likely that of a second liner. Harrington, who saw 10 games of NHL action last season, should be ready for an NHL job in the fall, although he profiles more as a bottom pairing option on the blueline.

The deal also gives the Leafs cap space going forward, and if this off-season has taught us anything, it's that having cap space is a definite asset. The Blue Jackets and Flames were both able to take advantage of plenty of cap space and acquired Brandon Saad and Dougie Hamilton on the cheap. In the future the Leafs might be in a similar position to take advantage of other team's cap trouble.

It's not the start to the rebuild that many were hoping for, but the Leafs are slowly starting to stockpile a decent prospect cupboard and are giving their scouts more chances to build through the draft. The next few years aren't going to be pretty, but in most years in Toronto it isn't anyways, at least now there's a plan.

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