Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts on Kris Letang to Maple Leafs rumours

Late on Wednesday night, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Rob Rossi (@RobRossi_Trib) tweeted this out: 

Cue Twitter blowing up and the hockey world losing its mind over the magnitude of a single hash tag (see: #leafs). As a bit of time passed, Rossi went on TSN Radio to clear up what exactly his tweet meant. 

Rossi said "Toronto has emerged as a preferred landing spot for Letang. It would be a place he would be willing to sign a long-term deal."

When asked what the price would be for the 26-year-old defenseman, Rossi said that a first round pick, a roster player, and a prospect would likely be what the Penguins want. 

Rossi also said that Pittsburgh and Letang's camp are still negotiating, and that his #1 goal is to remain a Penguin. 

Now, what does all this mean? It seems that every year, once the Stanley Cup finals end, the rumour mill fires up in time for the draft, giving fans something to talk apart aside from the upcoming NHL prospects. 

A look at recent history shows that some of the biggest player movements happen at the draft: last year alone, future-Veznia trophy winner Sergi Bobrovsky was dealt from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a trip of picks, not to mention the uber-blockbuster where the Pens sent Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter and a first rounder. 

It has been widely speculated that Letang has become a trade option since the Pens were eliminated in the third round by the Boston Bruins, with the former Norris trophy candidate entering the final season of his four-year contract that he signed in 2010. Currently making $3.5 million a year, many believe he will be due for a raise that could reach upwards of $7 million. 

If the Leafs are serious about acquiring Letang, then they'll have to look at how much money they're willing to invest into their blue line. As it stands, captain Dion Phaneuf is also entering the final year of his contract, where he'll make $6.5 million. Phaneuf's name has been linked to several trade rumours, and Maple Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis has openly stated that no player on the roster is untouchable. One must assume that Phaneuf wouldn't get the type of deal that he signed with Calgary in 2008, when the (at the time) 22-year-old was one of the most intimidating d-man in the league. Now 28, Phaneuf isn't the same kind of player he once was, although he is coming off his best season in Toronto since his arrival in 2010. 

Another thing to consider about the Leafs defensive core is that Cody Franson is due for a new contract. The 25-year-old was 8th in league scoring amongst d-men (4-25-29) and became one of the more dependable blue liners for Toronto nearing the end of the season (he was logging nearly 23 minutes a night in the playoffs, to put into perspective). Now entering what is considered "prime years" for NHLers, locking up Franson should be a priority for the blue and white. How much he is worth is up for debate.  

One more point about the Leafs (current) blue line is that Carl Gunnarsson is also an RFA. What seemed like a vanilla year for the Swedish defenseman, it was known that Gunnarsson was hurt for most of the season, and it showed with poor defensive play and a lack of offensive production. While I like Gunnarsson, and believe that he is a bonafide NHL player, I don't know how much the Leafs will be willing to pay the 26-year-old, who has struggled to stay healthy during his career, missing at least 10 games in three of his four campaigns with Toronto. 

And we haven't even mentioned Jake Gardiner, who could be considered the best talent on their blue line to begin with. Not to mention 2012 first round pick Morgan Rielly, who many hockey minds believe will make Toronto's lineup next season.

But what about Kris Letang? A few people on twitter brought up the point that, since the Leafs already get a fairly decent amount of offensive production from their current defensive core, bringing in Letang would be redundant. And I admit, the type of defenseman that I want Toronto to go after isn't a puck-moving offensive dynamo, but a brute, stay-at-home d-man who can crush bodies and log big minutes. 

But if you look at what this team could be before, during, and after the 2013-14 season, then trading for Letang might make sense. If Phaneuf really is being shopped around -- some are slating Edmonton as an option, a team that desperately needs defence, not to mention Dion's hometown -- then bringing in a top d-man like Letang would be crucial to any success the Leafs would have. Phaneuf played close to 30 minutes almost every game this year, and it's laughable to think Toronto has anyone in their system who could fill that void.

You better believe that if Pittsburgh wants to make a deal with Toronto, then either Morgan Rielly or Jake Gardiner would have to be one of the pieces going the other way. As mentioned earlier, a roster player and a prospect would be part of a package in a trade, so any combo that Nonis would present would have to involve one of them. As much as I love the two of them, and recognize the ridiculous amount of potential that they both carry, it's exactly that: potential. 

I know that Gardiner has had flashes of brilliance during the past two seasons, and Rielly tore up the WHL before joining the Toronto Marlies towards the end of last year; but, when an elite defenseman like Letang (you'd be foolish to think he's not elite) is available, and it's been known that he sees your franchise as a desirable place to play, then you have to take that shot. You know what you're getting out of him, which is point-per-game production combined with above-average defensive abilities. Could one or both of Rielly and Gardiner give you that? We don't know that for sure, and we might not know for at least a couple of seasons. Sacrificing the potential of one of those prospects for someone who's a lock for Team Canada in Sochii 2014 is an opportunity that cannot be passed. 

Of course, this could all be smoke and mirrors, and Penguins management/Letang's camp might be doing whatever they can to maximize his trade/contract value. Saying "Toronto is a potential destination" is the perfect way to get the hockey world talking.

With the draft taking place this weekend, expect lots of movement and transactions to take place across the league. Whether or not the Leafs and Penguins cross paths is still a mystery. 

Follow me on twitter @HunterCrowther. 

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