Five potential trade destinations for Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel and Peter Horachek. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Phil Kessel is an elite goal scorer. Phil Kessel is the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Phil Kessel is a lightning rod for criticism and it’s rather unfair.

As the Maple Leafs continue to spiral out of contention in the Eastern Conference, a reorganization of the team’s core group of players seems more and more likely. If the Maple Leafs wave the white flag on this group then it’s Kessel who will likely serve as the centrepiece to restocking the shelves.

Kessel has seven years remaining on a contract that sees him collect $8 million annually against the salary cap. He could be that last piece of the championship puzzle for many teams around the league, or another piece to build around for a team on the rise. The Maple Leafs would be seeking a significant return in exchange for one of the NHL’s most consistent goal scorers.

With that in mind, here are five potential trade destinations for Kessel if the Maple Leafs look to move him.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Predators general manager David Poile has publicly defended Kessel amid rumblings of him being "uncoachable." Perhaps Poile, who had Kessel on the 2014 United States Olympic team, is jockeying to be first in line if the Maple Leafs look to unload the sniper.

Kessel could be the final piece of the puzzle for the Central Division leading Predators. As long as the Maple Leafs aren't looking for the likes of Shea Weber, Seth Jones, or Filip Forsberg in return then maybe there's a deal to be had.

Potential trade chips: Colin Wilson, Ryan Ellis, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

You can't have the moon unless you ask for it first.

If the Maple Leafs are looking to reload the roster with good prospects and a proven young player, the Islanders could play matchmaker. New York is deep down the middle, thus a guy like Ryan Strome could be available in any deal that may involve a scorer of Kessel's ilk. With a multi-player deal in mind perhaps Kessel, Jake Gardiner and a draft pick head to Long Island in exchange for a package of blue chippers.

Potential trade chips: Strome, Griffin Reinhart, Michael Dal Colle, Ryan Pulock, Josh Ho-Sang, Brock Nelson

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

The Blue Jackets have been hit hard by injuries this season, but they have the pieces in place that could enable a quick turnaround for the 2015-16 season.

Phil Kessel would provide the Blue Jackets with an elite sniper they've longed for since failed projects with Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik and the departure of Rick Nash. Kessel doesn't come cheap, but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen would be crazy to move Ryan Johansen at this point in his career. There are some intriguing prospects in the pipeline, and some attractive NHL-proven players worth targeting.

Potential trade chips: Sonny Milano, Ryan Murray, Kerby Rychel, Boone Jenner, Alexander Wennberg, Oliver Bjorkstrand

ARIZONA COYOTES

Nothing says 'thanks for nothing' quite like sending your best player to a non-contender.

If the Maple Leafs are looking for a young Ontario-born player to pin a thirsty fanbase's hopes to then look no further than Arizona. Max Domi played a major role in Team Canada's return to supremacy on the World Junior Championship circuit and fits the bill as a local product that some Toronto fans have been longing for. There's no guarantee that Domi develops into an NHL star, but there's a lot more to like about the Coyotes' roster and system, too.

A move from the bright spotlight of Toronto to relative anonymity in Arizona might be a welcome change for Kessel.

Potential trade chips: Domi, Laurent Dauphin, Keith Yandle, Mikkel Boedker, Henrik Samuelsson, Brandon Gormley

ST. LOUIS BLUES

The Maple Leafs' best bet for a lofty return on Kessel may rest with finding a potential trade partner looking for the final piece to take a run at the Stanley Cup.

The St. Louis Blues could be that team willing to pay a ransom for Kessel's services.

The Blues don't have a lot of cap space so it's likely a veteran roster player (think Patrik Berglund) would be included in a deal for Kessel. A proven NHL talent, plus have your pick of the franchise's prospect pool in exchange for Kessel, who says no?

Potential trade chips: Berglund, Jori Lehtera, Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie, Robby Fabbri, Jordan Schmaltz, Ivan Barbashev