In Monday's Toronto Star, Damien Cox did what Damien Cox does and wrote a piece designed to elicit strong disagreement or passionate approval; it is time, he suggests, to trade Phil Kessel.
While I don't agree with the assertion that Kessel looks "ill-conditioned, isolated [or] troubled", I do have some concerns that this team is running the risk of walking the line between a playoff spot and a realistic shot at a top pick. If you're a team that's building toward something then that doesn't necessarily mean that you move your top young goalscorer to get out of it but if you expect to be in this position for a while then maybe it does.
Kessel is 25-years old and a top-tier offensive player in the NHL. He has four consecutive years of 30+ goals and last season put up a point per game while playing all 82 in a fully healthy season. He probably has another 5 years of all-star level production ahead of him and possibly more depending on how sharply he regresses through his non-prime years.
The problem, as I see it, isn't with Kessel as a player so much as it is with the team as it sits today. Nobody is picking the Leafs to make the playoffs this year and while our system is improved from the group that Burke inherited, the real help (Percy, Rielly, Finn, Leivo) are still at least a couple of years away from being impact contributors. Kadri and Gardiner are both nice players who are still in their development years but neither are the type of player who can, in isolation, bring this team from where it is now to a team that will reliably be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
So what do you do if you're Nonis? Kessel is a year-and-a-half from unrestricted free agency and will almost certainly command an enormous contract. While I'm not willing to say that there's little hope he'd re-sign in Toronto or that he's unhappy here under the media spotlight, there is a chance that it's true.
Even if it isn't, is Kessel the kind of player you want to commit over 10% of your salary cap to? He's a very good offensive player but an argument could be made that when it comes to wins and losses, there may be a better way to spend that kind of cap space. The problem, of course, is finding that 'better way' which is a lot easier said than done.
What it all boils down to is, A) whether you think this team can move from one of the weaker teams in the East to a contender during Kessel's prime, and B) what the chances are of Kessel signing an extension that locks him up through his remaining peak years.
It's pretty clear that you're not going to get one-hundred cents on the dollar if you move Kessel but that's generally the price of a rebuild. The problem that arises when deciding whether or not we should deal Kessel at 25-years of age is that it's conceivable that this team could be good while he's still in his prime and then you're left having paid a dollar for two quarters and three dimes.
My personal opinion would be to wait and see what this offseason brings. If the year plays out more or less as it's begun, the Leafs will be adding a blue chip prospect to a group that already includes Morgan Rielly, Kadri will be emerging as a bonafide top-6 forward, Reimer will be solidifying himself as a legitimate starter in the NHL, and who knows, maybe Nonis is able to parlay the team's cap space into a top-line UFA. Either way, you'll have a much better idea of what kind of dollars Kessel is expecting on his next deal (and his willingness to stay in Toronto), and where the team stands moving forward.
I don't see what the rush is to ship Kessel out of Toronto. We'll have more information if we wait until the summer and with more information, we can make a better decision on what's best for the longterm health of the franchise.