We knew Phil Kessel trade rumors would swirl like a hurricane leading up to next week's NHL draft. We also knew it would be complicated for the Leafs to pull off a deal. Kessel, after all, carries an $8-million cap hit, a reputation for questionable fitness and defensive play and an ugly stat sheet from 2014-15.
It's not a huge surprise, then, suitors are calling Toronto's asking price for Kessel too high. ESPN's Pierre LeBrun reports two executives have balked at the Leafs' demands.
"They're going to have to eat more of his salary than they think right now," one exec told LeBrun.
That makes sense from a strict financial perspective. An $8-million cap hit is a lot for any team. Based only on current cap space for next season, without any free agents re-signed, six NHL teams would already be out of the running for No. 81's services if they didn't send salary back Toronto's way or if the Leafs didn't eat part of Kessel's cap hit. The list of teams with less than $8 million in cap space for 2015-16: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Vancouver, Boston and Chicago.
At the same time – I don't buy the idea every team is scared off a Kessel deal. For one, the Leafs have enough cap space to help out a cash-strapped Kessel suitor, even once they re-sign restricted free agents Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier. They sit at more than $16 million right now. As I've said before, they can afford to, for example, swallow P-A Parenteau's $4-million price tag if it helps them swing a blockbuster with Montreal.
Also, it's good business for any Kessel suitor to leak "frustration" to a reporter with a reach as wide as LeBrun's. Why not make Brendan Shanahan, Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas and the Leafs management team believe they're pushing their luck by asking too much? Anything to drive down the price. (and that's not to discredit LeBrun's report in any way. I'm sure the execs did tell him they're scared off).
There's still a market for what Kessel offers, no matter what his suitors want us to believe. No statistic matters more in hockey than goals, and Kessel has the fourth-most over the past five seasons. That's worth surrendering a pick, prospect and roster player, even at his price. Consider that Kessel sits behind just Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry in goals since 2010. Then consider the former trio's linemates have included Nicklas Backstrom, Martin St-Louis and Ryan Getzlaf. Kessel's? Solid James van Riemsdyk. Injury-prone Joffrey Lupul. A whole lot of Tyler Bozak. A dash of Kadri. Imagine what Kessel would do with a marquee No. 1 center? His new team would forget about his lack of a six-pack and defensive shortcomings awfully fast. He has one of the best two releases in the NHL. That means he can still be a 50-goal man with the right person feathering him passes.
So while Toronto is sure to scare some teams away from the trade market with exorbitant asking prices, others will remain interested. It's simply too rare for a raw talent like Kessel to be made available in the middle of his prime.
Will we see Kessel moved next week? Probably not. Call it a 25 percent chance. But it sure as heck isn't zero percent.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin