Lots of calls, but Leafs in ‘no rush’ to trade

Shawn McKenzie reports from Florida where questions surround whether the Toronto Maple Leafs will trade or draft at 4 and whether they’ll trade Phil Kessel.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Cue the rumour mill: The Toronto Maple Leafs are talking openly about trading Phil Kessel.

Team president Brendan Shanahan acknowledged that the Leafs have been taking phone calls on their best player ahead of the NHL draft and suggested that there’s “strong interest” around the league in acquiring his services.

“I think the fact that we’ve come out and said that there are going to be some changes — and obviously when you say that you look around at the rest of the other 29 teams, they look at your best player and they look at your most productive player,” Shanahan said Thursday. “So he’s probably garnered the most interest and he’s probably the player that has gotten the most phone calls…

“It’s a possibility. There’s a lot of interest from other teams in him and well-deserved, the way he’s produced over his career and the last several years. He had a down year last year — he knows it — we think he’ll bounce back and other teams think he’ll bounce back or we wouldn’t be getting phone calls.”

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The biggest issue in dealing Kessel is the seven years and $56 million remaining on his contract. That’s fair market value for a guy who has produced the eighth-most points in the NHL since 2010-11, but it’s a big number for contenders to try and squeeze in under the salary cap.

At this point the Leafs aren’t willing to retain any money in a transaction, according to Shanahan, so it’s likely going to take some creativity to get a deal done.

The Leafs have made it known that they are open for business. After a disastrous second half of the year there are virtually no untouchables on the roster, including Kessel, who has five 30-goal seasons under his belt.

“There’s been strong interest in not just Phil, but several of our players,” said Shanahan. “As I said at the end of the year, for whatever reason the mix hasn’t necessarily worked out well here. But we do have some strong individuals and talented players.

“I won’t say one way or the other who is going to be around and who won’t — it’s still to early for that — but all I can say when you have a guy like that who’s such a natural goal-scorer in the prime of his career, everybody wants goal-scoring.”

Should the Leafs fail to unload some of their core pieces this summer — Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and captain Dion Phaneuf are also on long-term deals — Shanahan is confident that new coach Mike Babcock can get more out of the group.

However, the front office has a strong desire to get younger and is most interested in acquiring draft picks and prospects as part of any trade.

“We’re getting some calls on some players where we are interested in some of the things that we’re hearing,” said Shanahan. “Whether they develop into something more real, [we’ll see]. Couldn’t really give you a firm answer on an exact timeline.”

It certainly didn’t sound like any trade was imminent. Of course, that can change with one phone call.

As the Leafs enter a rebuild, their biggest priority is remaining patient to try and generate the best possible return for their assets.

“We’re in no rush,” said Shanahan. “I think we just have to have a deal that we’re comfortable with. We don’t have any deadlines … [but] we’ve said what our intentions are, to change some things.”

A deal involving Kessel would represent a major shift in direction for the organization. And at this point it’s clearly a path that’s being seriously contemplated.

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