I’ve been listening to more hockey talk radio than I usually do in the past week or so – as a Leafs fan, trade rumours are nearly all I have left in terms of a stake in the 2014-15 season — and I’ve been surprised by the common refrain suggesting the Maple Leafs will have to retain salary if they’re to trade the remaining 7 years and $54 million of Phil Kessel’s contract for good value (should they move him in the off season).

As I just stated, this isn’t only in regards to a potential move before the deadline, when the cap logistics figure to squeeze a high number of otherwise-interested buyers out of the running, but insiders like Pierre LeBrun seem to be suggesting it will still be the case when rosters are more fluid and teams aren’t required to be one-hundred-percent cap compliant in the summer.

It’s difficult to determine if this is just the insiders blowing smoke up our behinds and filling air time with dramatic rhetoric of just how bad things have gotten in Leafland, if they’re getting caught up in the current hysteria of the fans and the anti-Kessel brigade of some of their media cohorts, or if this is how GMs around the League are actually viewing Phil Kessel’s value. My guess is it’s the first or second of these explanations, and probably a combination of both.

GMs, largely, aren’t stupid. They know just because the team sucks it doesn’t mean Phil’s individual value is significantly reduced. They know a high-end asset hampered by a bad team when they see it. And Kessel’s history of production really, objectively, settles any dispute about it. Anybody who thinks Kessel, if traded, isn’t going to go to a good team and do anything but light it up is not anywhere near an NHL front office. That doesn’t mean he’s the right fit for every team in the League, but it’s the truth.

Kessel’s recent struggles are not attributable to some sort of character flaw Brian Burke missed when he acquired him, that he missed when he was around him during his engagements with Team USA. It’s not that his teammates are openly lying about him being a quality and well liked teammate, or that, while “in his own bubble… cares and is dealing with a lot of pressure” was a favour a respected veteran like Stephane Robidas lied about regarding a teammate he secretly thinks is dragging the team down with his un-coach-ability.

It’s an established truth that Kessel has been poorly insulated in terms of the Leafs‘ severe neglect of the center ice position, and his two most common opposite-wing mates the past four seasons don’t particularly excel at the defensive side of the game. I don’t think there is a worse offender on the Leafs than James van Riemsdyk this season in terms of his application on the backcheck, or his work on the defensive-zone half wall. Joffrey Lupul has stepped up his efforts in that area of the game in the past few seasons, to my eye, but he plays his weak side and has always struggled in that latter area in particular.

Chart from @MimicoHero
Chart from @MimicoHero

Consider this shocking chart regarding JvR’s defensive results. He’s been the worst defensive forward on the Leafs by the numbers, and it’s not close. Supplement Kessel with a center who out of his depth next to an elite talent and playing in the top matchups, with an offensively-talented but actually-defensively-weaker opposite-side winger, and the results really can’t be all that surprising, or the explanation for the line’s struggles all that elusive.

The issues with the Leafs team construction are a major factor in Kessel’s current struggles, and while he hasn’t always shown the effort I’d love to have seen while the ship has sunk (nor is he the first to check out a bit in a lost cause, but -15 since Jan. 1, 2015 is obviously unacceptable), that has to be seen as indisputable by all reasonable observers. The truth has always been this, almost since the moment Kessel arrived in Toronto: He’s a fantastic talent, a major piece, and the moment he’s not far and away, no questions asked, the best player on the team, the Leafs might be getting somewhere. That’s never been accomplished.

Outside of the typical cold streak that strikes the vast majority of the League’s best goal scoring talents at some point during a season, here’s the other part of the more likely explanation for Kessel’s protracted struggles in the last 17 or so games:

Phil Kessel is (likely) hurt. He looks off when pivoting, and when turning sharply he sometimes seems to be grabbed by a shot of pain, possibly from the long rumoured back injury. It’s been visible for quite some time now, but here’s two examples that can easily be drawn upon from last night’s game alone, conveniently located just before a couple of goals, one by Kessel himself and the other before the Panthers’ 3-1 tally, where he’s pulling up a bit:

This is a player who, if we count his lockout pace, has broken 30 goals in six consecutive seasons. Alex Ovechkin actually hit 30 goals in the short season, making him the only one to officially hit 30 goals in the last six consecutive seasons, but right behind him is Kessel with five 30-goal seasons in his last 6. In cumulative goal scoring over the past six seasons, he ranks fifth in goals, behind only Ovechkin, Stamkos, Perry and Marleau.

It goes without saying these things haven’t changed because of a five-points-in-17-games slump wherein he’s probably been hurt. We all know GMs would kill for that type of ready-made, consistently-superb offense, and that the Leafs organization and its fans will miss it the moment he leaves the team. When Kessel signed for $8 million a season for 8 years, he was signed to market value and possibly a little bit less, and the lion’s share of GMs would have been tripping over themselves to hand him that contract or better it, had Leafs let him test free agency.

[quote_box_center]When Brian Burke acquired Phil Kessel and promptly gave him a 5-year, $27M contract, he paid up quickly and ultimately was ahead of the curve as the production Kessel provided the Leafs was above the value he signed for (30+ goals every year). There was some doubt when it came time to re-up Kessel’s deal and Nonis signed Phil to the 8 year $64M contract, but there shouldn’t be anymore. With Patrick Kane’s and Jonathon Toews’ ground breaking 8 year, $84M contracts, there is a benchmark set and the Leafs will once again have Kessel on a bargain. Kane is an unbelievable talent and fantastic player who has only hit the 30 goal mark once (and was on pace to in the shortened season). Including Kessel’s shortened-season pace, he has hit the 30 goal mark six years running. He hasn’t missed a game in four seasons now, either. Kessel is turning 27 this year, and while guessing how he will do throughout the entirety of that contract is a fruitless endeavour, in the immediate future it is a bargain.[/quote_box_center]
-Anthony Petrielli, summer 2014

If Kessel has to go for a rebuilding Leafs team to improve in the long haul, in hopes of shoring up its deep weaknesses at the vital C and D positions with some young assets, then so be it; we’ll take our medicine. However, if Dave Nonis and Brendan Shanahan want to move Phil Kessel and have to retain salary for 7 more seasons to move him for good value, it’s because they aren’t doing their jobs. If they do retain salary to move Phil, they’ve been pushed around by a smarter GM and taken like a fool. (Not saying this is the case).

If Phil Kessel really can’t be moved for good value without retaining salary, I was wrong and I apologize. But, if that’s the case — without knowing the specifics of the deal — I’d probably recommend keeping him.