By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 2) – It is common knowledge that Florida Panthers are considering offers for the No. 1 pick in the National Hockey League draft later this month at Philadelphia. General manager Dale Tallon has spoken about such a possibility.
“I’m open for business,” Tallon said. “You have three options: You either take it, move back, or trade it. So that’s what we’re looking at.”
As one might imagine, a number of suitors will converse with Tallon – possibly until the moment Gary Bettman calls out for the first draft selection. Though GM’s in possession of the coveted pick often discuss trade scenarios, it is rare that one openly admits to dangling the draft gem. It will therefore be less than a shock if Tallon chooses to forego the No. 1 pick in an attempt to land more immediate help and push his foundering team into the playoffs for only the second time in 13 seasons (Panthers missed the playoffs 10 years in a row before losing to New Jersey in the 2012 opening round). The NHL’s south-Florida market will not remain viable if its team continues to perform ineptly. Nor will Tallon remain employed by general partner Vinnie Viola and his associates.
Here in Toronto, for a multitude of obvious reasons, the Leafs are less in need of a quick fix than the long-term development of young players – particularly on defense. And after another late-season flame-out, the club is absolutely screaming for a change in culture and leadership. As such, a blockbuster trade rumor I have heard from two people employed by NHL teams has some merit. Those that frequent this corner will know that I rarely delve in trade speculation. Popular websites elsewhere handle the issue quite nicely. Occasionally, however, people within the game that I respect whisper a possibility. If I’m privy to the same speculation twice, it’s worth a mention. So, here goes:
The deal I’ve heard sounds more wild than far-fetched: Maple Leafs would trade Dion Phaneuf, Nazem Kadri and their first-round pick – eighth overall – to Florida for veteran Ed Jovanovski and the No. 1 overall selection. It would enable Toronto to draft potential franchise blue-liner Aaron Ekblad of the Ontario Hockey League Barrie Colts. Ekblad would ultimately join Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Finn to form a young, potentially superb defense unit for the Maple Leafs.
WOULD LEAFS TRADE NAZEM KADRI AND DION PHANEUF TO FLORIDA AS PART OF A DEAL FOR THE NO. 1 PICK IN THIS YEAR’S DRAFT? IT MAKES SENSE FOR BOTH TEAMS.
Let’s break down and analyze the trade.
Phaneuf’s name has surfaced on a number of occasions since Brendan Shanahan became president of the Leafs, Apr. 11. Given the decision to retain coach Randy Carlyle and the extreme unlikelihood that Phil Kessel will be traded, Phaneuf provides the Blue and White its lone opportunity to alter a failed nucleus. Leafs would accomplish this by trading Phaneuf to Florida, where he would suit up alongside veteran Brian Campbell; young stalwart Erik Gudbranson and fellow defensemen/prospects Dmitry Kulikov, Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic. In a best-case scenario, the Panthers would have a good mix of experience, size and mobility on the blue line. Phaneuf has limited movement restriction in the contract he signed with Maple Leafs in late-December, though he might have enough authority to require approval for a trade to Florida. My NHL contacts don’t believe that would be much of an issue. They feel Phaneuf would likely welcome a change of scenery and a leadership role in a far-less-maniacal hockey market.
Sadly for the Maple Leafs, Kadri and Carlyle mix like gasoline and fire. It’s a player/coach relationship with very limited upside. Given that only Buffalo scored fewer goals than Florida this season, Kadri would help boost a flagging offense. And, the Panthers would still get a good prospect with the No. 8 selection in the draft. Though there is risk in trading a young, gifted player, the Maple Leafs do have enough firepower to relinquish Kadri, who might blossom under new direction. And while Campbell carries a $7.15-million cap hit for the next two seasons, Florida is swimming in space ($30,234,625 according to Capgeek.com). Tallon could easily absorb Phaneuf’s $7 million hit, thus helping his team to reach the projected cap floor of $52 million.
The Leafs have a more complicated cap situation with a number of players to contend with. Dave Bolland, Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin, Mason Raymond Troy Bodie, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Paul Ranger and James Reimer were all deployed by the club this past season and are all either restricted or unrestricted free agents. No. 1 goalie Jonathan Bernier has one year left on his paltry $2.9-million contract and if he continues to progress as a legitimate starter, he’ll command a hefty raise. The rumored deal with Florida would slash nearly $2.9 million from the Leafs’ cap figure – that being the difference between Phaneuf and Jovanovski. Turning 38 at the end of this month, Jovanovski has one year left on his $4.125-million contract and is not certain about coming back for an 18th NHL season. He appeared in 37 games for the Panthers after undergoing nearly a complete hip replacement and would like to play again – should his body cooperate. If that were to happen, the first overall draft pick in 1994 would lend size, savvy and experience to the young, developing Leafs on the blue-line. He would assume a portion of Phaneuf’s considerable ice time while Rielly ascends into the role. If Jovanovski retires, Leafs are off the hook for his salary and would still have the first selection in this year’s draft.
To summarize, this is a deal that could help both teams. In Phaneuf, Florida would add another horse on defense and a player with a refreshed outlook. Kadri would entertain fans in Sunrise and generate much-needed offense for the Panthers. By trading Phaneuf, Leafs would form a new identity and partially dissolve the blundering Carlyle-Phaneuf-Kessel triumvirate. Toronto would add yet another terrific prospect on the blue-line. As always, a trade rumor has to be considered for what it is – pure speculation. But, this one makes a bit of sense.
STANLEY CUP FINAL PREDICTION
LOS ANGELES IN SIX.
Were they to pay attention, the Rangers would be thrilled to know I’m picking the Kings to win the Stanley Cup. After all, I chose Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal to knock off the Blueshirts and was wrong each time. Had Carey Price been healthy, perhaps my Eastern Conference Final forecast would have panned out. Instead, Henrik Lundqvist leads New York into its first Cup final in 20 years against a playoff-hardened team looking to win for the second time in three years. The difference, I believe, will be the Kings’ ability to overcome insurmountable odds this spring. Clearly, it’s an intangible and both teams have them… look no further than the inspirational performance of Martin St. Louis for the Rangers. But, L.A. is only the fourth team to rebound from a 3-0 playoff hole (against San Jose) and the first team to win three consecutive Games 7 on the road. As such, I’m picking Los Angeles to win the Stanley Cup in Game 6, two weeks tonight, at Madison Square Garden.
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