The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the 2013-14 NHL regular season with many looming questions yet to be answered. Can the Buds qualify for the playoffs in an 82 game schedule? How will the Leafs recover from a tragic Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins? And, will Phil stay? When the curtains close on the 2013-14 NHL season will it be the last we see of Phil Kessel in a Leafs uniform?
The Leafs are in the best shape they’ve been in years. Size and speed up front, two promising goaltenders, and a bright young defence corps position the Blue & White to make a serious stab at the playoffs, and possibly even a deep post season run. As good as everything appears on the surface, the pending UFA status of top sniper Phil Kessel puts a damper on the team’s immediate future.
They call him Phil The Thrill for a reason. The Leafs sharp shooter has been exposing NHL goaltenders with cut throat coldness since joining TML in the summer of 2009. Over his last three seasons as a Leaf, only three players have found the back of the net more than Kessel – Steven Stamkos 134, Corey Perry 102, Alex Ovechkin 102, and Phil Kessel 89, tied with Jarome Iginla. See the list of the top goal scorers from the last 3 NHL seasons.
At the beginning of 2013-14 NHL training camp, Kessel told reporters he would not negotiate a contract extension during the NHL season. In other words, if the Leafs don’t get their best player signed before the puck drops on October 1st, they run the risk of losing him for no compensation next summer.
Not negotiating during the regular season has happened before. This January 2012 news article by NJ.com provides insight into the Zach Parise, Ryan Suter contract negotiations at the time. Both players walked when they reached unrestricted free agency, leaving their respective NHL clubs the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators empty handed.
Phil’s most concerning comments throughout this entire ordeal were made to Toronto Media on September 13. Kessel told reporters, “this is my first time being an unrestricted free agent this year.” Kessel explained, “it’s something that I think all guys look forward to, where you can choose where you want to play.”
The comments may be harmless, or perhaps they were a ploy to put the pressure on Leafs GM Dave Nonis. Regardless of Kessel’s intentions, he boldly speaks the truth. Under the current NHLPA agreement, players earn the right to choose where they want to play after so many years of service. This summer, Kessel has earned that right, allowing him to make the final decision on his future home and team.
In the summer of 2012, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter both exercised their right to explore free agency. Last season, the Anaheim Ducks faced a similar situation with their two stars, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. The Ducks were able to ink both players to lengthy contracts before the season was over, preventing Perry or Getzlaf from exploring employment options elsewhere. A few months back, in the 2013 NHL offseason, Penguins defenceman Kris Letang was only days away from hitting the open market. The Pens came to terms with their dynamic offensive blue liner just before free agency opened on July 5th. Any one of the above mentioned three scenarios exist for Kessel and the Maple Leafs.
A fourth option also exists. The Toronto Maple Leafs could trade Phil Kessel during the NHL regular season. A Phil trade seems very unlikely, truth be told. The Leafs are competitive again, aiming to make the playoffs and take it a step further this season. Although there is no telling how great the return for Kessel would be, his unwillingness to discuss contract during the season may scare other teams away from paying the big price. However, the biggest reason the Leafs are unlikely to trade Phil Kessel is simple – they probably don’t want to. Phil has come into his own as a member of the Blue & White. The Leafs invested a lot to acquire him. Plus, his offensive capabilities put him in the elite tier of players within the league. It’s pretty hard to replace what Phil Kessel brings to the equation.
The other unknown in all this is the salary cap. It dropped drastically this season to make up for lost revenues from the 2012-13 NHL Lockout. It is highly speculated that the salary cap will substantially rise next summer. Kessel could demand top dollar, and depending on the Cap ceiling, he’ll probably get it from the Leafs. Until the numbers are released, NHL GM’s don’t have anything concrete to reference while mapping out the future of their rosters. Although, that didn’t stop Nonis from making a big free agent splash on July 5th.
Only time knows where Phil Kessel will play hockey next season. He could re-sign with the Leafs as soon as today, or he could choose to not talk contract until the 2014 offseason.
Phil has made tremendous progress over the last two seasons and throughout the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. During his time with the franchise he has really endeared himself to the city of Toronto and Leaf fans all over the world. This season Phil can accomplish even more, as he impressively continues to improve as an NHL superstar, playmaker and goal scorer. Losing Phil could potentially put a massive halt on the Leafs recent progress. At this point, not re-signing Phil Kessel is not an option.