MONTREAL -- As rumors have portended, many are expecting Phil Kessel to be dealt in the next 48 hours leading up the July 1 free agency frenzy. But don’t start sizing up the 21-year-old sniper for a Maple Leafs sweater quite yet.
First of all, after ogling the haul that Anaheim received for D-man Chris Pronger over the weekend, scheming Toronto GM Brian Burke is now going to be asking for the sun, moon, stars and a few first-round draft pick cherries on top in exchange for puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle.
In case you missed it, Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren ponied up a pair of talented young players (winger Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Luca Sbisa) along with two first-round picks and a conditional pick for the future Hall of Fame blueliner. Then Jay Bouwmeester was traded to Calgary and presumably will sign a long contract extension with the Flames.
That means the 31-year-old Kaberle remains as the best potential chip available on the trade market among defensemen, and Burke is going to seek way more than Kessel and a future draft pick in exchange for his four-time All-Star.
That sits as Reason No. 1 why Kessel won’t be dealt prior to the July 1 date when he can begin receiving offer sheets from other teams as a restricted free agent.
But wait -- there’s more.
Following the draft this past weekend, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli also made an interesting observation that allows you to peer into his manner of thinking when it comes to the “Kessel situation.”
Chiarelli, and many of his other fellow hockey GMs, believe that amid a sinking economy and a stagnant salary cap there’s a market correction afoot among free agents -- and there may be a real reduction in the amount of ridiculous contracts teams will be willing to simply hand out to players seeking work (Wade Redden, Scott Gomez and Brian Campbell anybody?).
A real contraction in both the number of years (think one or two years instead of the 3-5 year deals that have become fairly prevalent in hockey) and the annual value of deals could be dropping like a Spoked B stone. Chiarelli doesn’t want to hand out more years or money than he absolutely has to after already opening up the wallet for Tim Thomas and David Krejci, and he wants to view the landscape on July 1 before again loosening the purse strings.
“I really think a lot of us general managers are reluctant to dip our toes in the water right now. That translates into less trades. There’s a general conservatism that at least I feel is because of (salary) uncertainty,” Chiarelli said. “I feel like part of it is that you feel like the market is going to adjust and you want to experience that adjustment first before you start shuffling. When you talk about there not being any moves (at the draft) that’s kind of how (that goes). I’ve talked to a couple of GMs and that’s how they feel also.”
Chiarelli is talking about a measured, somewhat prudent read-and-react scenario amid a potential “market correction” across the NHL, and it could be similar to the last winter’s baseball market in the sense that only the very few “top echelon” free agents hit the big money. Everybody else in the middle-to-upper-middle class of the hockey world may be in line for a rude awakening of pay cuts and shorter deals with a very real salary cap drop-off coming after next season. Kessel might just fall into that group if Chiarelli plays his hand correctly, and has read the landscape just right.
“You want to experience the new market first before you really dive into it. I think we’re going to see that kind of restriction on July 1. That may mean less activity,” said Chiarelli. “Or maybe the same activity, but less term (of years in the contract) and less average annual value.”
The best possible scenario for Chiarelli? Ride out the July 1 free agent period and hope Kessel doesn’t receive any outlandish offer sheets from Montreal, Toronto or Minnesota -- or any other team with cash to burn and a need for a natural born goal-scorer. If Kessel gets no restricted free agent love from any other teams, then the Bruins really have their young sniper over a barrel heading into a summer of negotiations.
Kessel has no arbitration rights. He can’t hold out of training camp for more than 14 days or -- per the CBA -- he won’t be allowed to play for the entire 2009-10 season and he’d lose the service year.
Given the “market correction” taking place and given the fact that it appears there will be a much higher price for Kaberle the second time around, the best thing could be for Chiarelli to sit with his hands folded, watch and wait for Kessel’s market to develop into a one or two-year deal at something close to Krejci money ($3.75 million per year).
It’s something that will be a lot easier said than done, however, with a 36-goal scoring chip that’s obviously on the trade block after Chiarelli and Burke made his availability -- and their difficulty communicating in the same rarified Harvard language -- very public over the weekend.