Make no mistake, there is interest in Phil Kessel.
The Florida Panthers are one team keen on acquiring the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best sniper, according to a report Monday from Harvey Fialkov, who covers the Panthers for the Sun Sentinel.
Despite recent struggles, the 27-year-old Kessel is in the midst of his seventh consecutive 20-goal season. He has 21 goals and 26 assists in 57 games in 2014-15.
Kessel is in the first year of an eight-year pact with Toronto that pays him an average of $8 million per season but is reportedly no longer in the club’s long-term strategy.
“It won’t happen until summer, but Mr. Phaneuf and Mr. Kessel are not in the plan,” reported Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail last week. “The goal now is extracting as much value as possible for them. That translates either to young players who are high-ceiling projects and draft picks.”
Fialkov told Sportsnet 590 The Fan that he asked Kessel about playing in Florida at the All-Star Game and his face lit up.
“This guy comes to Florida every summer,” Fialkov said. “He loves to fish and play golf as well.”
Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis is reportedly taking calls on Kessel and Phaneuf now, though it is believed the players’ trade value will increase after the season is over, when more teams have salary cap flexibility.
“I go where they want me. I love Toronto, but if it’s not here, it’s not here,” Kessel told reporters after Thursday night’s loss to the New York Islanders.
The Panthers “young studs” likely include Calder Trophy candidate and 2014 No. 1 pick Aaron Ekblad, 19-year-old centre Aleksander Barkov, and 20-year-old Boston College defence prospect Michael Matheson.
Kessel and the Maple Leafs host the Panthers Tuesday at Air Canada Centre.