MONTREAL — Phil Kessel’s wish may still come true.
Sportsnet.ca has learned that negotiations on a contract extension between the star winger’s agent and the Toronto Maple Leafs were taking place ahead of Tuesday’s regular season opener in Montreal.
With the player unwilling to engage in talks once the schedule is underway, the sides held discussions to see if a last-minute deal could be reached before that happened. There were whispers on Monday that an agreement might be at hand, but neither Leafs general manager Dave Nonis nor agent Wade Arnott would confirm that.
Kessel, who turns 26 on Wednesday, is entering the final season of a contract that pays him $5.4-million annually. Unrestricted free agency looms in July if a new deal doesn’t materialize before then.
It will take a major financial commitment from the organization to get it done – perhaps as much as $8-million per season over eight years, the maximum allowable term under the collective bargaining agreement.
Kessel has led the Maple Leafs in points in each of the four seasons since being acquired from the Boston Bruins, hitting the 30-goal plateau the first three years and scoring 20 during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. He also added four goals during the first-round playoff loss to the Bruins last spring.
His stated preference is to remain in a city where he has grown increasingly more comfortable. Kessel returned to Toronto a month earlier than normal this past off-season and believes the team isn’t all that far off becoming a contender.
“We have a great group of guys here – we have fun,” Kessel said at the start of training camp. “The fans are great, I enjoy the city. There are great restaurants. And I’ve got some good friends outside of the team too that I like to hang out with.
“That’s why I like it here.”
The Leafs have some major decisions to make in the coming months. In addition to Kessel, captain Dion Phaneuf is among a group of eight players that are eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. There are three key restricted free agents to deal with as well.
It may ultimately force Nonis to conduct some negotiations during the season, something that he doesn’t normally like to do.
However, that won’t be an option with Kessel because the winger is adamant that he won’t let things play out that way. He has already been asked about his contract status repeatedly over the last month and was bracing for it to be a continued storyline if it remained unresolved into the season.
“I’m going to probably not talk about it that much,” Kessel said recently. “I’m going to get asked obviously, but I don’t think there’ll be any contract stuff during the year. It’s just too much of a distraction.
“We’ll see how it plays out.”
There was certainly dialogue in the lead-up to Tuesday’s game at the Bell Centre, but time was running short.