Skip to main content

Mirtle: Maple Leafs rebuild turns sights to Kessel, Phaneuf and a flawed core

Two weeks to chart the course of a franchise.

Two weeks to overhaul a roster that has failed for years.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to be busy in the next two weeks. The entire NHL will be. Even on the day that the Chicago Blackhawks paraded the Stanley Cup around town, the league's transactions board began to spring to life, beginning its hastened pace leading up to the opening of free agency on July 1.

Story continues below advertisement

The Minnesota Wild put Matt Cooke on waivers, for the purpose of a buyout, to help their cap situation. Ottawa coach Dave Cameron received a contract extension. Several teams re-signed depth players.

The Leafs made news Thursday for three minor house-keeping reasons.

They allowed fringe winger Brandon Kozun to sign with Jokerit in the KHL.

They moved into the lead in pursuit of free agent Nikita Zaitsev, a 23-year-old right defenceman who is expected to come to the NHL in 2016.

And they elected for salary arbitration with goaltender Jonathan Bernier, one of two restricted free agents – the other being Nazem Kadri – Toronto needs to get signed this summer.

It's only the beginning.

With the NHL draft a week from Friday in South Florida, trade talk has begun to heat up, and there are at least four Leafs in those conversations. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are the headliners, but Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Co. will also be trying to move Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, who both have three troubling years remaining on their deals.

Story continues below advertisement

All four have limited no-trade clauses, which obviously complicates matters, especially given Kessel's has only eight teams he will allow a deal to. All four also have sizable salaries in a year in which the salary cap is expected to go up less than 3 per cent.

The Leafs cap situation is another wrinkle. They have about $50-million committed, in a year when the NHL's salary floor will be set at just under $54-million.

New contracts for Bernier and Kadri will bring Toronto closer to $60-million, but if they start moving high-priced players, they're going to have a ridiculous amount of money to spend on … who knows? Combined, Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul and Bozak make $24.5-million – or half of what the Leafs currently have on the books.

So Shanahan has plenty of flexibility here. He won't be forced into bad deals to get rid of these contracts right away, even if that's the long-term plan.

And it is still the plan. Even with coach Mike Babcock in the mix, the Leafs have to clean house. They have eight players signed until 2018 and a management team with a vastly different way of looking at roster building than the last regime.

You can have a worthwhile debate about keeping Kessel, but he turns 28 before the season starts and will be at least 30 before the Leafs can plausibly begin their road up the standings. If they can get a good return that helps them in three or four years – especially when there's some uncertainty over what Kessel will be at that point – that makes some sense.

Story continues below advertisement

There's less grey area with the Leafs' other veterans on big contracts. They have to go, either in the next two weeks or early next season.

The recent Stanley Cup final provided a pretty clear view as to why. Philosophically, the Leafs are now more aligned with what the Tampa Bay Lightning are, and that means they're going to pursue young, undervalued assets and put a premium on speed and skill over all else.

Think William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, not Tyler Biggs and Korbinian Holzer.

The reality, too, is that Toronto has gone big on analytics, including a focus on puck possession, and an aging Phaneuf, Lupul and Bozak don't fit that profile. They'd be taking minutes and salary space away from players who could audition for roles, including projects – like Zaitsev – that the Leafs will want to take fliers on.

While the return is paramount if they move a star such as Kessel, it's much less important with the other three. Their value is lower, for one, and having the roster spot and cap space open offers value of its own.

In what's going to be a vitally important next two weeks, getting that flexibility – and determining how to use it – is going to be a focal point.

Story continues below advertisement

After an almost complete reconstruction of the front office and coaching staff, the Leafs are finally about to use some of that new brain power to pull apart and reshape the roster.

It's easy to see where it should start.

Maple Leafs' top trade candidates

1. Dion Phaneuf: Leafs captain is 30 years old and has six years left on a contract with a $7-million (U.S.) cap hit, which is tied with Drew Doughty as the sixth biggest for a defenceman league-wide. His no-trade clause allows him to be moved to only 10 teams, but he may be persuaded to add to that list.

2. Phil Kessel: Leafs' top scorer turns 28 in October and is coming off an ugly finish to his season, which was the first of a new eight-year, $64-million deal. It may be worthwhile having him play under Babcock to regain his form, even if only to increase his trade value.

3. Jonathan Bernier: A restricted free agent, Bernier is expected to command in the $4.5-million range on a new deal. His name is far less prevalent in trade talk, but there are several teams looking for goaltenders – Edmonton, Calgary and San Jose top the list – and it may make sense to move Bernier if there's substantial return to be had. He turns 27 in August.

Story continues below advertisement

4. Tyler Bozak: His reign as the Leafs top-line centre is likely at an end. Bozak, 29, has three years left on a deal that pays him $4.2-million but has been only a 50-point player despite big minutes, top power-play duty and playing with Kessel.

5. Joffrey Lupul: One of the toughest contracts to move. Lupul will be 32 by the time next season opens and has missed a considerable amount of time because of injury. He also has three years left on his $5.25-million deal and has a limited no-trade clause (14 teams). Some good teams were interested late in the year, but the Leafs would have to retain salary to get a deal done.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter