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Not long after a column suggesting the Maple Leafs (and Vancouver Canucks) could take lessons on rebuilding from the Buffalo Sabres went live here at Complex Canada, Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail reported that team president Brendan Shanahan was given the green light to initiate the process by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).
Coincidence? Probably, but it’s always nice to look super-smart and plugged in too.
While the full tear down most likely won’t happen until time between the end of the season and the NHL Entry Draft, getting the okay from MLSE to start rebuilding this franchise means Toronto could be in fire sale mode prior to the March 2nd NHL Trade Deadline.
Chances are the guys on the move first will be third- and fourth-line options that can help potential playoff teams down the stretch, but if the right offer comes along, GM Dave Nonis has the go-ahead to move All-Star forward Phil Kessel.
There is no question that the American sniper is the Leafs best player and biggest trade chip. There are some issues that continue to dog him, like former coach Randy Carlyle labeling him “uncoachable,” but Winnipeg just netted a nice return for a 23-year-old with a less proven track record in Evander Kane, so Toronto should be able to get a nice return whenever they end up moving Kessel.
But where should they send him and what should they be looking for in exchange for the 27-year-old winger?
Here are five potential trade partners for the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs.
Nashville current sits atop the overall standings and has a team capable of making a run at the Stanley Cup. Of course, they could also hit the playoffs, fail to score enough goals to win games and squander what looks like a golden opportunity.
Kessel would be the most accomplished and consistent goal scorer the franchise has ever had and general manager David Poile is a supporter, so a move to “Music City USA” would make sense, especially considering the Preds have a solid crop of young talent to plunder in return.
Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones aren’t going anywhere, but a first-round pick, third-line center Colin Wilson and a couple prospects (Kevin Fiala? Juuse Saros?) could work.
The constant attention and pressure of playing in a rabid market like Toronto isn’t something that Kessel necessarily craves and there are few NHL destinations with less pressure and media scrutiny than Sunrise, Florida.
The Panthers are currently four points out of the eighth and final playoffs spot in the East and have exactly three players with 10 goals or more.
A package including one of Florida’s young defensemen (Eric Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen, Dmitry Kulikov) plus some picks and prospects might be enough to secure the Panthers a legitimate scoring threat for the stretch run or next season.
New York Islanders
One of the surprises of the 2014-15 NHL season, the Isles are playoff bound and have a bright future with John Tavares leading the way. They’re moving into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season and adding a proven goal scorer like Kessel to ride shotgun with “JT” could be exciting.
New York is loaded up the middle with Tavares, Ryan Strome, and Brock Nelson, plus Frans Nielsen, Anders Lee and ex-Leaf Mikail Gravovski, plus a pantry full of solid prospects.
Could Toronto pry Strome and one of the Islanders top youngsters away for Kessel? It would certainly be worth inquiring about, that’s for sure.
Detroit Red Wings
If playing somewhere that is passionate about hockey, but not quite as “All Up in Your Business” as Toronto appeals to Kessel, a move to Hockeytown might work.
Detroit is a perennial playoff team with a nice, young group of players rising up to eventually replace aging stars Henrik Zetterberg and Paevl Datsyuk. While the Red Wings greatest need is down the middle, adding Kessel alongside Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar sounds okay too.
A package including one of Anthony Mantha, Tomas Jurco or Dylan Larkin plus one of Detroit’s prospects on the blue line is a good starting point for discussions.
Currently sitting just outside of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Wild have a solid mix of young talent and proven veterans and might be the ideal landing spot for Kessel because they’re (a) loaded with American forwards and (b) a passionate hockey market without being the center of attention.
The Wild likely wouldn’t be interested in mortgaging their future to secure the sniper at this point, but one of their young forwards plus one of their young defensemen plus a pick and a prospect? Who says no?