If the last few days of NHL transactions have reminded us of anything, it’s this: There’s a huge difference between the trade you choose to make and the one you need to make.
After a round of failed contract talks with Dougie Hamilton and a growing sense that he wanted out, the Boston Bruins felt like they needed to trade him. With a cap crunch and the threat, real or perceived, of an offer sheet looming, the Blackhawks felt like they needed to trade Brandon Saad. In both cases, the return was underwhelming and widely panned. That’s what happens when it’s a trade you need to make — you end up taking what you can get when you can get it, even if that means you’re selling at a discount.
On the surface, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to trade Phil Kessel. The 27-year-old sniper has seven years left on his contract, so he wasn’t hitting the open market anytime soon. At an $8 million cap hit, he certainly wasn’t cheap, but he also wasn’t especially overpaid based on his production. And he was easily the team’s best player, and among the very best in the league when it comes to what he does best; only Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Corey Perry have scored more goals over the last five years, and Kessel managed that while dragging Tyler Bozak around the ice as his center.
Now, the Leafs did need to trade someone — president Brendan Shanahan had said as much in April, acknowledging that “for whatever reason, the mix doesn’t work” — and after yet another disastrous season, nobody on the roster deserved to be untouchable. If the right offer came along, anyone was available. But if there was one guy among the team’s core that you’d be happy to keep, you’d think Kessel would be that guy. The Maple Leafs could certainly choose to trade him, but they didn’t need to.
Or did they? Yesterday, the Maple Leafs sent Kessel to the Penguins in a trade that would make sense only if it were one they thought they needed to make. The full deal has Toronto sending Kessel to Pittsburgh along with a second-round pick, Tyler Biggs, and Tim Erixon. In exchange, they get prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington, forward Nick Spaling, a first, and a third.
That’s a mouthful, but we can trim it down for evaluation purposes. Biggs and Erixon are minor pieces that were presumably included primarily to free up contract spots, and Spaling is a mildly useful player who’s mostly a salary dump. It’s not unfair to think of this trade as boiling down to Kessel for Kapanen, Harrington, and a first.
That’s not an awful return, but it’s not the sort of package that typically makes a team move its top player. Kapanen is a good prospect, a skilled winger who was the Penguins’ top pick in 2014 and still hasn’t turned 19. He projects as a top-six guy, maybe even a future first-liner if everything breaks just right. Harrington is a 22-year-old defenseman who could still top out as a solid second-pairing guy. Both have value; neither is a sure thing. As for the first-rounder, it’s actually a conditional pick that can’t fall into the lottery, and could revert down to a second-rounder if the Penguins miss the playoffs in each of the next two years.
Then there’s the not-so-small matter of salary retention. The Leafs will eat $1.2 million of Kessel’s salary and cap hit for all seven years left on his deal. Shanahan has (correctly) refused to put a timeline on the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, but it’s safe to say that it’s not “eight years or more.” At some point when the plan calls for them to be contending for a championship, the Leafs will still be sitting with $1.2 million in dead cap space on the books from this deal. That hurts.
So if that’s the best Toronto could do for Kessel, why trade him at all? Why not focus on moving out other players and hold on to the guy you can pencil in for 30 goals and 80 points most years? And in fact, the Leafs had spent the last few weeks assuring everyone that they were perfectly prepared to do just that. If the market wasn’t there, why not wait it out?
Today, the answer seems clear: They were bluffing. They were always going to move Kessel this summer. They didn’t think they had a choice.