The Toronto Maple Leafs made a lot of aggressive moves through free agency and the trade market this summer, but none of them addressed the future of the franchise's best player.
According to a report from Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, star winger Phil Kessel only wants to focus on hockey next season despite having just one more year left on his contract that pays him an average of $5.4 million annually.
There's no question that Kessel is an elite player with the prime of his career still ahead of him. He already has four seasons of 30-plus goals and 21 points in 22 career playoff games on his resume.
Re-signing him should be priority one for general manager Dave Nonis, but to accomplish that, a new contract would have to be worked out before October if Kessel remains firm on his desire not to negotiate during the season.
This presents a problem for the team, because it wouldn't be ideal for the Leafs to make Kessel one of the highest-paid players at his position before having enough of a sample size to determine if he's a legitimate franchise cornerstone and not a player more suited as a secondary option on a good team.
But as Damien Cox of the Toronto Star notes, Kessel's reputation as a big-game playoff performer improved against his former team in 2013, but did it elevate him to the status of a player worth around $8.75 million per season?
It’s fair to say the conversation around Phil Kessel changed somewhat with his performance during last spring’s memorable playoff clash with Boston, and with Kessel apparently in improved physical shape this summer heading into a contract year, there’s every chance he may finally become the consistently explosive player the Leafs (and Brian Burke) believed they were getting in 2009.
If that happens, or even if it doesn’t, an eight-year deal in the $70 million range is in the offing, and all indications are that Kessel wants to stay in Toronto and that the Leafs are determined to keep him and pay him the huge money.
The safest decision is to re-sign Kessel now and avoid the possibility that he walks in free agency and the Leafs get no value in return for their franchise player.
Toronto has filled the cupboard with quality young talent over the last few years, and for the first time in a while, the front office is showing the patience required to build a perennial contender in the salary cap era. To ensure that this progress continues unimpeded, Nonis must trade Kessel for draft picks, prospects and/or established NHL players before the deadline if a new contract isn't completed by that time.
Trading Kessel before the deadline would give the Leafs more assets for future success, but it might prevent them from making a second straight playoff appearance unless the return package includes another impact forward. For a fanbase that tasted playoff action for the first time in nine years last season, trading Kessel and not making the postseason would be difficult to watch.
As the 2013-14 season approaches, the Leafs have found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place with Kessel's future.
Do they re-sign him for franchise-player money before the season or roll the dice and risk the possibility that a trade deadline move might be necessary to prevent the 25-year-old from exiting Toronto for nothing as a free agent?
Don't be surprised if Kessel gets an extension before the season. The Leafs will want to avoid distractions during the year, and even if Kessel's not worth upwards of $9 million per year now, the young forward will be when the salary cap inevitably increases in the near future.
Players of Kessel's caliber don't come around very often. He's already one of the NHL's best goal scorers and has proven to be a reliable postseason player. Those are the types of stars that teams make a strong effort to sign long-term.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.
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