The Toronto Maple Leafs could be only a few weeks away from doing something that they haven't done since 2004—making the playoffs. That doesn't mean questions don't surround certain members of their team, namely Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel.
Whether or not the team makes the playoffs and manages to win a round or two isn't the question. The question is whether or not both Kadri and Kessel are central cogs around which the Leafs want to continue building.
It will take two or three seasons, but eventually all the dead weight left over from the Brian Burke-era will be gone, leaving an opening for management to shift the identity of the team moving forward.
As we've seen over the last couple of deadlines, star-caliber players fetch a much stronger return before they hit rental status. Does Toronto want to end up like the Calgary Flames, forced to dump top assets while only getting a fraction of their asking price back in return?
So what should they do with Kessel and Kadri?
Over the last two seasons, Kessel has been an outstanding performer. He is nearly a point per game guy over that time, and has been an automatic 30-goal scorer for the Leafs since arriving in 2009-10. What Toronto traded for Kessel is absolutely irrelevant when looking at what he brings to the table on a nightly basis.
He isn't the kind of player that they could duplicate on the trade market. As Burke would tell you, 25-year-old snipers just don't fall into your lap all that often. So what would the asking price for a just-entering-his-prime 30-goal scorer be?
Probably too rich for any of the 29 other teams to consider.
Trading him just to trade him would be a serious mistake, as Kessel has proven that he's more than capable of withstanding the hurricane of media coverage in the locker room while still scoring goals at a prolific rate out on the ice.
Considering all of these factors, the Leafs would be making an error if they allowed Kessel to walk as a free agent or traded him for futures and draft picks between now and when his contract expires in 2014-15. An extension should be near the top of Toronto's "to do" list over the next year or so.
The Kadri conundrum is a bit more complicated.
When the Maple Leafs drafted him at seventh overall and showed patience with him (for lack of better word) along the way, was it only to watch him blossom so they could trade him during the offseason? That's seriously doubtful, and it's hard to imagine what it would take to acquire the sudden point-per-game center from Toronto.
He's been among their best players during this unforeseen playoff push, and while it may be tempting to "sell high" on a young guy like Kadri, what happens if he lands elsewhere and continues to produce at this level?
The Toronto media would have a feeding frenzy on another lopsided deal involving a young, budding star. The risks fair outweigh the rewards of swinging Kadri in a deal, and the Leafs would be wise to lock him up after his entry-level deal expires next season.
Sign the kid to a one or two-year pact and see if he can continue this kind of output. If he can, lock him up long term on a high paying deal. If he can't, no harm, no foul.
If the Leafs look to trade anyone, it should be players such as Mikhail Grabovski, who posted back-to-back 50-point seasons, signed a big contract extension and then promptly went missing. Clarke MacArthur could be another interesting piece of trade bait, as could John-Michael Liles if Toronto agreed to retain a bit of his salary.
With Kessel and Kadri performing well, along with the likes of Joffrey Lupul and James Van Riemsdyk entering their primes, the Leafs could be set up for a solid run of playoff appearances. That is unless they take some bad advice and deal one of their stars, thus continuing a cycle of poor choices by upper management.