On Wednesday, Wade Arnott, Phil Kessel’s agent, indicated his client’s apparent desire to spend the rest of career playing hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This, despite being disappointed in the club’s performance last season (I don’t even want to know what adjective he’d use to describe the two previous seasons in Toronto), and with little guarantee yet that this team is primed for long-term playoff success.
We’ll probably never know why the camera-shy Kessel wants to remain in a media-laden Toronto; Arnott seems to suggest it is an admirable inner desire to win in hockey’s mecca. Perhaps the better question is, what could it cost to keep him?
I took a quick look at Phil Kessel’s goal production for his time in Toronto, and he’s 11th in goal scoring league-wide with 101 goals (and a total of 212 points) from the 2008-2009 season to present. And having plied his trade so effectively on a reasonable $5.4 million cap hit, he’s no doubt due for a raise either on or before July 1, 2014, when his current deal expires.
For some perspective, here are some useful take-aways from the above link:
- Kessel has the fifth lowest salary of players in the top 20 in goal scoring over that time period, behind Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, Pittsburgh’s James Neal and the Islanders Matt Moulson (who, by the way, has got to be quietest three-time 30-goal scorer.
- 8 of the 10 highest paid forwards in the league are in the top 20 goal scorers (Only Zach Parise, mostly due to injury; and Vinny Lecavalier, mostly due to awful, do not make that list), and all of those players carry $7.5 million + cap hits.
- Of that same top 20, 12 of those players are currently on contracts that carry cap hits of at least $6.5 million per season, though even that number is deceptive. Players like Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk are signed to long-term back-diving deals, while several players on the list (Kessel, Ryan, Neal and Carter again) are on RFA-age or “second contracts” and tend to be well below market value for marquee UFAs.
From what I can extrapolate from the above, the cost of Kessel’s loyalty should come in around or above $7.25 million a season on a five to eight year deal. While my $2 million raise for Kessel might seem outlandish, far more reputable journalists than me have had similar thoughts.
Also compounding the issue is that Dion Phaneuf’s contract is up at the end of next season. While he’s by no means the league’s top defenseman, I don’t suspect he’d be amenable to a deal for less than the $6.5 million he currently makes. In a move similar to Minnesota, I could see Kessel and Phaneuf accepting identical long term deals a la Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
An unfortunate difference is that Dave Nonis will not have the benefit of the old CBA, which allowed the Wild GM Craig Leipold to acquire the players at a significantly discounted cap hit. Kessel and Phaneuf might not be Parise or Suter calibre, but timing might see them on similar cap hits. But is it wise?
There’s nothing wrong with having two $7-million players on your team. The question is, is it right if those players are Kessel and Phaneuf? In doing so, you’d commit around 20% of the salary cap to two talented, but arguably incomplete players. Before signing off on such massive deals, Dave Nonis has to be thinking not just about whether both of these players make the team better now – unquestionably true – but if one or both are going to be the type of offensive leader and defensive leader, respectively, to take the team to a Stanley Cup victory. We may have a better handle on this question in another year’s time, but with the current time frame of the Leafs’ theoretical path to contention, we won’t have a concrete answer before time comes to ink the paper.
Of course, the most difficult part when discussing the cost of keeping Kessel is that letting him go – either through free agency or trade – would be viewed as absolutely indefensible in many circles.
Given the cost that Brian Burke paid to ply Kessel from Boston in 2009, bringing Kessel in for a mere four to five potentially fruitless years would represent a total failure by the franchise to value and allocate resources towards meaningful on-ice product. Also problematic would be the stigma surrounding any players acquired for Kessel, who would likely garner undue comparisons to Tyler Seguin or Dougie Hamilton, through no fault of their own.
As a means of sign-off, here’s a quote from my interview with Dave Poulin for the Annual; he gave me a gem regarding Mikhail Grabovski and Jordan Staal’s then-recent contracts that put’s Kessel’s agent’s words into better light:
I talked to another GM, and he said, “Don’t tell me I’ve signed a player to a bad contract. If I have a player and I like him? I want to keep him. Why do I want to go to the unknown? So, if I pay a premium to keep a player that I know – that I like – and that I know can play in this city, why do I want to go into an unknown market?”
Clearly, Wade is hoping that like is in the air.
Friday Morning Links…