Maple Leafs' Rebuild Must Begin with Phil Kessel's Departure

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Maple Leafs' Rebuild Must Begin with Phil Kessel's Departure
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Phil Kessel is the Leafs' biggest asset on the trade market.

Veteran Toronto hockey writer Damien Cox called, yesterday, for the trading of the Maple Leafs' top scoring threat, Phil Kessel and for the club to rebuild.

He was right to do so.

The betting here is that new GM Dave Nonis won’t do what Floyd Smith did, or what Cliff Fletcher did, or what Pat Quinn did, or what John Ferguson Jr. did, or what Brian Burke did. There will be no trading away the first-rounder in an attempt to make the present more palatable. The Leafs seemed to have learned — finally — that blue-chip youngsters are not to be rushed.

Cox's core argument revolved around the intractable issue of Kessel's contract, which expires at the end of the 2014 NHL season.

When former Toronto General Manager Brian Burke acquired Kessel in a trade with Boston in 2009, the move was—and still is—controversial, but the result was at least a defensible one. In Kessel, the Leafs had acquired a 23-year-old gifted scorer, whose contract they controlled for the next five years at a reasonable cost. The theory went that Burke, who Toronto fans were thrilled with at the time, would surely have turned the club into a playoff contender by then.

Burke's failure and the subsequent facts on the ground demand a massive shift in the team's game plan going forward.  Currently, Kessel's contract generates a salary cap hit of $5.4 million, leaving plenty of room to add a supporting cast of players around him—but no such talent has emerged.

 

Should the Toronto Maples Leafs trade Phil Kessel?

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It could be argued that, even at full strength, the Toronto Maple Leafs have surrounded their star with below-average talent—but they are not at full strength. Two of their supposed top-six forwards, Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur (both assistant captains) are out injured and in a shortened NHL season, the Leafs' playoff hopes already seem remote.

Soon the Leafs will be forced to choose between granting their star forward a major salary increase—one which might very well preclude the signing of additional scoring help—or letting him go for nothing.

The unforgiving math dictates that Dave Nonis, the Leafs' new and beleaguered GM, must trade Kessel now, while he still has market value and nearly two seasons left on his contract.

Furthermore, with the departure of Kessel—the player who was to be the core of Brian Burke's five-year plan—even the casual hockey fan must admit that Toronto is a club that is, once again, at the beginning of another heartbreaking rebuilding cycle.

The Edmonton Oilers have offered all the proof that is needed about what can be done by building through the NHL Draft, and as Cox made clear in his article, it is crucial that Toronto begin that process now.

 

The 2013 NHL Entry Draft is likely to be one of the deepest in recent memory. If Toronto continues their downward trend, they might very well be expected to obtain a top pick at season's end; trading Kessel could theoretically land them another.

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
Brian Burke's five-year plan is over. Time for a new one.

Surely such an outcome would be preferable to long-suffering Toronto hockey fans, as opposed to the seemingly endless campaign for mediocrity that has plagued the club over the last decade.

Brian Burke is gone and his plan for the Leafs must go with him.  There is no path forward for this club but to embrace the years of hopeful losing that Edmonton fans are now seeing the benefit of.

Surely all can agree that, in a youth movement such as this, a player like Phil Kessel has no place.

 

Jeff Hull is a contributor to Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RugbyScribe

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