Though there's over two weeks remaining in the NHL regular-season schedule, it can't end soon enough for the moribund Toronto Maple Leafs and their disappointed fans. The Leafs have slid to 27th overall, entering Thursday's game against the Florida Panthers having won only six games since Jan. 1.
The National Post's Michael Traikos reports attendance at the Air Canada Centre has declined to the lowest levels in the arena's 16-year history. For the first time since 1972, Hockey Night in Canada booted the Leafs off a recent Saturday-night telecast.
Toronto fans are left wishing for the Leafs to win the 2015 NHL Draft lottery and the right to select future NHL superstar center Connor McDavid. Pundits, meanwhile, continue to speculate over which members of the current Leafs roster won't be around when training camp opens in September.
NBC Sports' Jason Brough cites TSN's Darren Dreger recently stating his belief Leafs leading scorer Phil Kessel will be traded in the off-season. Brough speculates that might not happen if the Leafs win the draft lottery and select McDavid. Even then, he suggests it might be in the club's best interest to start over by shipping out Kessel, 27, and team captain Dion Phaneuf.
Prior to Dreger's comments, ESPN.com's Craig Custance suggested the Leafs could retain Kessel if they select McDavid in the draft. Custance notes Kessel has posted significant numbers without the benefit of a true first-line center, suggesting he and McDavid could make a good offensive pairing.
Of course, if the Leafs don't land McDavid (or Boston University center Jack Eichel) in this year's draft, a rationale for retaining Kessel will be gone. Still, it won't be an easy move. While there will be clubs interested in Kessel's scoring ability, they won't be keen to take on his $8-million annual cap hit. The Leafs could be forced to take back substantial salary in return or retain part of Kessel's salary to ensure a deal goes through.
Further hampering a Kessel trade is his modified no-trade clause. Prior to the trade deadline, there were rumors claiming several unnamed Western Conference clubs expressed interest in the Leafs winger.
The preference of Leafs management could be to ship Kessel to a Western Conference club rather than a potential Eastern Conference rival. Then again, the Leafs were talking trade with the Detroit Red Wings on trade deadline day regarding Phaneuf, so perhaps they could move Kessel to an Eastern club for the right price.
Dreger also claims the St. Louis Blues had some interest in Leafs left wing Joffrey Lupul, adding the Ottawa Senators also may have “kicked the tires” on the 31-year-old. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, meanwhile, believes Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier has the biggest financial incentive to ask out, as his time to cash in is now or next summer.
When healthy, Lupul is capable of over 25 goals and 60 points. The problem is, the last time he played 79 or more games in a season was 2006-07. Lupul also has three seasons remaining on his contract at an annual average cap hit of $5.25 million, though in actual salary he'll earn $6.75 million for 2015-16. Health issues and a high cap hit could work against any efforts by the Leafs to move him this summer.
Bernier, 26, is due to become a restricted free agent this summer and is a year away from UFA eligibility. Leafs management must not only decide if he's to be part of their future but also for how long and how much it'll cost to keep him. Bernier has arbitration rights this summer, which could complicate things if the two sides struggle to reach consensus on a new deal.
KOVALCHUK’S NHL RETURN SHOT DOWN BY TEAM, MOTHER
A report broke Monday from a Finnish news outlet that Ilya Kovalchuk had informed SKA St. Petersburg, his club in the KHL, of his intention to return to the NHL for the 2016-17 season. Kovalchuk would have a number of hurdles to clear in order to get back into the league, including needing the approval of other teams due to his voluntary retirement and the termination of his contract.
However, since Monday, SKA vice president Roman Rotenberg has denied the reports. Rotenberg told Sportbox.ru that the talk of Kovalchuk’s return was nothing more than rumor, adding that Kovalchuk’s contract is for two more years and his return to the NHL is, “out of the question.” In an interview with Sovietsky Sport, Kovalchuk’s mother, Luba, said the reports about her son’s return to the NHL were, “nonsense.”
Kovalchuk would be free to return to the NHL in 2018-19 without needing permission from the NHL's 30 teams.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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