The Leafs next year will be faced with the difficult proposition of what to do with Phil Kessel. Much like Ryan Getzlaf, Kessel will be a UFA at the end of next season and on the edge of what many believe will be his most productive hockey-playing years. The contracts of Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have demonstrated the significant investment required to keep a player entering free agency in their mid to late 20s – close to their maximum value.
The difference between the players above and the deal struck in Anaheim is how the new CBA has forced teams to re-think superstar contracts. No longer able to sign players to heavily front loaded dollars that tapper in the late going, thereby maintaining a manageable annual cap-hit. Today’s GMs must now impress stars with the promise of an 8th year (opposing teams can only offer up to 7) or the allure of winning a Stanley Cup.
One interesting anecdote regarding Getzlaf that was mentioned on the radio, something I hadn’t really considered, since living in Toronto precludes our memories of championships, was the importance of Ryan Getzlaf to the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs. Notwithstanding Teemu Selanne (who turns 43 in July) Getzlaf and Perry represent the last remaining vestige from that winning roster (editor's note: it was pointed out that Beauchemin was too, though not contiguously). In a market like Anaheim, where hockey is a distant 4th in the psyche of sports fanatics it’s speculated that signing Getlzaf, the team’s leader and captain, will play a critical role in selling season's tickets. It’s quite possible that, as a result of this nostalgia, Ryan had more value to the ducks than any other Franchise. That is not to underestimate his abilities as a player going forward, which are considerable, but to illustrate, in part, why he was awarded what some have argued is too much money.
Back to Kessel, despite his struggles to score consistently in the lockout shortened season, he has still amassed a respectable 23 points in 26 games, remaining one of the game’s premier snipers, and has performed at a high level in almost every game this season. Boasting a lethal wrist shot and game changing speed that will no doubt have enemy GMs (and Phil’s agent) swooning. Assuming for a moment, that the Getzlaf deal is used as the new de facto barometer for star contracts, it’s quite possible Kessel will cross the $8 million dollar threshold. I don’t foresee Kessel making as much as Getzlaf, given the lack of playoff resume, however all bets are off if Phil makes it to UFA status where GMs are known to open the wallet, or the safe, as the case may be.
If the Leafs wish to sign #81 they’ll likely have to do it during next season. Committing that kind of money and that amount of term to a player could be unsettling, especially to new GM Dave Nonis (assuming he's still occupying the chair), wherein a Kessel contract could be the lasting memory of his tenure, much in the same way the Seguin trade defined his predecessor.
A contract of that size and length would unofficially anoint him as the centerpiece of the team moving forward (not that he isn’t the best player today). If the front office don’t see Kessel as an 8-million dollar player than perhaps they should consider their trading options this offseason, particularly at the draft, where plenty of suitors would no doubt be lurking.
$8 million is a lot of money, especially with Getzlaf’s Rocket Richard winning all-star winger potentially entering the free agent market this summer. There are no shortage of things to ponder right now in Leaf land, but come this summer we’ll all be asking the same thing - how much is Phil Kessel worth to you?