Why Phil Kessel should be Montreal’s top trade target

Phil Kessel. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Phil Kessel. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Babe Ruth, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury, to name a few, were Boston Red Sox and then New York Yankees.

Brett Favre was a Green Bay Packer and then a Minnesota Viking. Edmonton Oilers legend Grant Fuhr finished his career with Calgary. So there is precedent for a high-profile player to join his franchise’s most bitter rival.

That’s just one reason why I ask you not to gasp at this mental image: Phil Kessel in bleu, blanc, et rouge. Frank Mahovlich did it. Doug Gilmour did it. It can happen.

More importantly, it should happen, not in the sense that it will – fat chance – but in that it would be a smart idea for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens to engineer a Phil Kessel deal before this June’s draft.

Trading Kessel to anyone is easy enough to understand from Toronto’s perspective. In 2014-15 this team hit its lowest emotional foothold since the Harold Ballard days. The Leafs are nowhere near thinking about thinking about contention, and Kessel, their best player, took quite a beating in Toronto’s media pressure cooker this season. Kessel has insisted he enjoys being a Leaf and doesn’t want to leave, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t change his mind if the right situation arose. His $8-million cap hit is a lot to take on, but the Leafs could eat some of it, and it’s not an overpay considering only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry have more goals than Kessel this decade. What stat commands more money than pucks deposited in nets?

So, yes, there’s merit to the Leafs dealing No. 81. Not that they should force it, as it’s a perfectly reasonable idea to keep him around and hope he finds magic chemistry someday with a high-ceiling offensive center like William Nylander or Dylan Strome. But it’s a fine idea to kick the tires or let other teams come a-kickin’.

That’s the easy part, though. How on Earth would a Kessel trade make sense from Montreal’s perspective?

It’s most logical from a pure hockey standpoint. Kessel does one thing extremely well, and that one thing happens to be what Montreal needs most. The Habs’ 2.61 goals per game ranked 20th in the NHL, the lowest of any team to make the playoffs. They had four 20-goal scorers and three 60-point scorers. That isn’t horrible, but it doesn’t meet the standard of major Stanley Cup contenders, which tend to have higher-ceiling production (Tampa Bay had two players eclipse 70 points), deeper production (the Rangers had 15 players with at least 20 points) or both. Montreal wasted Carey Price’s stellar play by averaging 2.08 goals in the post-season. Game 6 against Tampa marked one of the only times Price looked human, and he couldn’t afford to be, as he had no offensive support. Max Pacioretty was the only Montreal forward with more than three goals over two rounds. And all but ‘Patches, Brendan Gallagher and Dale Weise topped one. The Habs scored two or fewer goals in five of six games against Tampa.

This team needs a real goal scorer to complement Pacioretty, the kind who isn’t available on the free agent market. With respect to pending unrestricted free agent Matt Beleskey, he’s an effective grinder and high-motor trigger man when surrounded with elite talent. A team that throws $5 million at him to be a 30-goal guy could end up with the next David Clarkson.

The caliber of skill and immediate help Montreal requires will only come via trade. So, yes, love him or hate him, Kessel is the type of player this team needs. And the idea Kessel disappears in important games and would be a non-entity in the playoffs? Total myth. He has 13 goals and 21 points in 22 career playoff games. He scored four goals, including two game-winners, against Boston, the team that supposedly has him mentally broken, in the 2013 post-season. The U.S. squad that fell short at the Sochi Olympics? Not Kessel’s fault. He had five goals and eight points in six games. He would provide the offense Montreal covets and, so far in his career, he’s been surprisingly effective in high-stakes games.

Let’s say GM Marc Bergevin declares Kessel a desirable trade target. What would be a fair return? The seven years remaining on his deal can be a positive (long-term control for a player who is still only 27) or negative (a lot of money on the books for a long time), so let’s say they offset each other. The best comparable I can think of to give us a sense of logical return: Rick Nash. In summer 2012, he was 28 and had six years remaining at a $7.8-million cap hit. He had very little playoff experience and regular season numbers similar to Kessel’s. Columbus sent Nash to the New York Rangers along with Steven Delisle and a conditional third-rounder for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a 2013 first-round pick.

If I’m Brendan Shanahan and/or the Leafs’ new GM, I start somewhere similar, maybe scaled back slightly to account for the stink Kessel seems to (unfairly) carry. Could Toronto squeeze big center Jacob De La Rose, goalie prospect Zach Fucale and a 2015 first-rounder out of Bergevin? Seems fair. If I’m the Leafs, I would start by aiming higher and ask for Alex Galchenyuk and a first rounder. Montreal would probably be loathe to move Galchenyuk, 21, but he’s still not guaranteed to be a superstar. It’s a fair asking price for a team surrendering the fourth-leading goal scorer since 2010.

The third factor Montreal would have to overcome in any Kessel deal: cap space. The situation isn’t too dire, with more than $10 million available for 2015-16. Re-signing restricted free agent Galchenyuk (if he isn’t involved in this hypothetical deal) and perhaps retaining UFA D-man Jeff Petry, who was a nice fit, would tie up more than half that money, maybe all of it if Galchenyuk doesn’t sign a bridge deal. But if Toronto ate, say, P-A Parenteau’s remaining year at $4 million, we don’t have a cap problem inhibiting this deal. Bergevin could make it work.

Lastly, there’s the matter of the space between Kessel’s ears. He has a limited no-trade clause and can submit a list of eight destinations to which he’d accept a deal. Would he uproot his life just to jump from one media circus to another? He wouldn’t relieve himself of any pressure. That said, Kessel has only played in big hockey markets thus far in his career, and if we call his bluff and believe his claim he’s comfortable in T.O., Montreal wouldn’t be a problem for him, either.

So, what do you say, Leafs and Habs? Toss around the idea of your first trade together since the Mikhail Grabovski swap. If Kessel costs too much, Bergevin can always call up Stan Bowman and ask about Patrick Sharp.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin