The Real Jason Blake: Is He Worth Trading?

Josh LewisSenior Analyst IJanuary 22, 2009

One of the most prominent storylines from the Toronto Maple Leafs' slide down the NHL standings in recent weeks is a guy who was all but ignored in off-season analysis of the club.

Was he on the very short list of players expected to lead the way in scoring? Nope. Was he one of the few players considered to be in the team's long-term plans? Not there either. Was he a prime candidate to be traded this season? Nowhere to be found.

So why is Jason Blake suddenly the one making headlines?

Well, the biggest reason appears to be that he has finally gotten past the shock of being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia last season.

Blake said all the right things at the time about feeling normal and focusing on playing hockey, but the development clearly affected his game and he recently admitted as much.

"How would you feel if someone told you devastating news?" Blake told the Toronto Sun. "It's no fun. But I had a summer to deal with it. I don't think I really had a chance to deal with it last year because I was playing every night. I'm not using it as an excuse by any means, but yeah, I'm having a lot more fun this year than last year."

Leafs head coach Ron Wilson told the Sun in no uncertain terms that Blake has been the team's "best player for two months now...all the things I heard that were negative about him, I haven't seen at all the last two to three months."

Blake, 34, has elevated his game in recent weeks and just about everyone in Leafland is noticing. His recent success was highlighted by a five-point night against the Carolina Hurricanes last Thursday, including a hat trick—an effort which stuck it to former coach Paul Maurice, now with the Hurricanes. It's no secret that the pair didn't see eye to eye last year in Toronto.

Whereas last season most fans (and perhaps the coaching staff as well) just wanted to forget about Blake and use him as little as possible, many viewers are now excited to see him on the ice, and he is frequently used in big-game situations, including shootouts.

At the risk of sounding callous, Blake's new attitude is a good thing for the Leafs on more than one front. Obviously, it's good for the team on the ice. A healthy, happy Jason Blake is a productive Jason Blake. But equally important is the fact that Blake's play could be raising his trade value.

The operative word there is "could." If Blake's skill and production were the only things under consideration, Toronto could move him for a decent return right now. But there are three seasons left on Blake's contract at a $4 million cap hit per year, and that fact hangs around Brian Burke's neck like a millstone in trade negotiations.

No matter how well Blake plays, it's very unlikely that any team would give up what he's worth in a trade. Unless he suddenly turns into the third-millennium version of Gordie Howe, no team will want to saddle themselves with $12 million over three years for a player who may or may not still be making an impact at the end of that deal.

Throw in the fact that most teams are trimming their belts in the wake of the global economic crisis, and it's about as likely as Burke and Kevin Lowe going to the gym together.

The only way Blake could be traded is if the Leafs are willing to throw in a draft pick or prospect and take back a bad contract in return. But even that wouldn't have been possible last season, so it's an improvement.

The $12 million dollar question is this: Is it worth Brian Burke's while to pull off such a trade to move Blake?

The simple answer is no.

The Leafs have cap space coming out their ears and likely will for the duration of the rebuild. Their hand is not being forced. With big ticket players like Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, and Nik Antropov possibly being moved by the deadline, this may be a team flirting with the salary cap floor of $40.7 million.

Rebuilding teams trade veteran players so they can get draft picks and young talent in return, which, as the theory goes, will help them to be a better team down the road when those players develop.

If the Leafs can't get good young talent in return for Blake, and they aren't pressed for cap space, why move him?

He seems to finally be happy in Toronto. His play is raising the team's spirits. And if the team does indeed sell off some veterans at the deadline, he will be one of the few experienced players left. Believe it or not, you do need a few players who have been around, even on a rebuilding team.

As fans and as management, it's time to sit back and see what Jason Blake can do now that he can focus entirely on hockey.