Wednesday when NHL free agency opened up and teams started wheeling and dealing again, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a move that was long expected, shipping much-maligned first-line sniper Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a multi-player, multi-pick deal.
The particulars shake out as follows: Toronto sends Kessel, former first-round pick Tyler Biggs, defensemen Tim Erixon and a conditional pick to Pittsburgh, in addition to retaining $1.2M of Kessel’s salary for the remaining seven years of his deal. In return, the Leafs get Nick Spaling, prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington, a third-round pick and a conditional first-round pick.
Rather than doing the “Who won the deal?” thing that everyone does because there is no way to score this for either side until seeing how Kapanen and Harrington develop in the next couple years, the real point of interest here is the return Toronto collected in return for a guy that has the fifth most points in the NHL since 2011 given that everyone in the league knew they were dire to get him out of town.
Every team that is sees a rebuild on the horizon or is in the early stages of one need to take note of this deal. Toronto had zero leverage here and it shows in what they got back in exchange for Kessel.
Kapanen, the son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen, was a first-round pick (22nd overall) in 2014 and Harrington, who played four seasons with London in the OHL, was a second-round pick in 2011. Both are solid prospects, but they’ve yet to prove themselves at the NHL level and there are no guarantees that they will. Spaling is a solid immediate add to the group that will take the ice night-after-night, but the conditional first is likely to fall in the lower third of the draft if it ever goes to Toronto at all.
Given that Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford and every other GM around the NHL knew the Toronto brain trust wanted to move on from Kessel, there was no reason for them to consider including the likes of Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot or Beau Bennett in a deal for the productive goal scorer.
While some fans are disappointed with the return, getting two young prospects with upside and a guy that can help next season is about as good as Toronto could have expected under these circumstances. Hoping for more is fine (and expected), but complaining about this trade given that Kessel has been on the block since the second the rebuild was announced is misguided.
It wasn’t going to get any better than this and that’s why other teams that are nearing Toronto’s situation need to make some tough choices before they land in the position the Maple Leafs are in now.
Let’s take Vancouver for example.
They’ve been trying to retool on the fly for the last couple years, adding pieces here and there around the core guys that carried this team to the Stanley Cup Finals five years ago. As tough as this might be to accept right now, having the Sedin Twins on the books for $7M each for the next three seasons is a worse position to be in than Toronto was with Kessel, even though everyone in Vancouver loves the twins and no one in Toronto seemed to like the recently departed forward.
Henrik and Daniel will be 35 in September and 37 by the time their deals are up. If Canucks GM Jim Benning can move them and get something even close to what Toronto just landed for Kessel, they should make the move immediately, unless they’re bent on having the twins in Vancouver uniforms for the duration of their careers.
Bringing in Ryan Miller last offseason to end up having to ship out a guy eight years his junior that would have commanded less money in free agency next season (Best of Luck, Eddie!) is only going to keep getting uglier in each of the next few years. They needed to see that a rebuild was coming two years ago and start moving, but instead, they thought they could still contend and now look where they are.
The Maple Leafs did as well as they could have under the circumstances. They got back as much as they could considering everyone knows they’re rebuilding.