The Toronto Maple Leafs' two best players, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, both have just one year remaining on their currant contracts and are eligible to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2014.
The futures of both players should be determined as soon as possible while their trade value is high, and there are two options for Leafs general manager Dave Nonis to consider.
Should he re-sign Kessel and/or Phaneuf to large, long-term contracts, or explore possible trades to avoid losing them for nothing in free agency?
Let's look at the best decision the Leafs can make regarding the futures of Kessel and Phaneuf.
Kessel has been an exceptional player for the Leafs since he was acquired in a very controversial trade with the Boston Bruins before the 2009-10 season that sent two first round picks (which became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton) to the Boston Bruins.
Former Leafs general manager Brian Burke brought Kessel to Toronto to be a centerpiece player, but that's not the type of role he thrives in. The 25-year-old star is not a franchise player that you build a team around. He's a great complimentary piece who gives a team the needed depth and talent to win a Stanley Cup.
James Neal is an example of what Kessel should be, which is the final piece to a team that is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and has a true No. 1 center.
Kessel has a $5.4 million cap hit through the 2013-14 season, and should receive a nice raise in his first contract as a UFA. He could make anywhere between $6 to $7.5 million in salary per season in his next deal, and paying him that kind of money wouldn't be a smart move for the Leafs.
As a quiet player who doesn't embrace the spotlight and has a small chance of playoff success with his current team, it's hard to imagine Kessel wanting to re-sign with the Leafs.
I bet he's tired of the constant Seguin/Hamilton comparisons, and even though they will never go away, his trade to Toronto in 2009 won't be a hugely debated topic in another city, which would lessen the pressure on him to perform.
It also wouldn't be surprising if Kessel took less money to sign with a team that would give him a good chance to win a Stanley Cup and not ask him to be the face of the franchise.
The best decision the Leafs can make regarding Kessel's future is to trade him as soon as possible, because the closer he gets to free agency, the less value Nonis will get in return.
Don't expect any team to overpay or offer fair value for Kessel next season when he's just a few months away from becoming a UFA.
There are plenty of teams who could use Kessel as a player that makes them a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, and his $5.4 million cap hit isn't a large one for a player of his caliber.
The Leafs aren't going anywhere with Kessel over the next few years, so why risk losing him in free agency when Nonis could probably get a top prospect and/or a high first-round pick in a deep draft in exchange for him?
Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf might be more likely to re-sign with Toronto than Kessel, but as a talented offensive defenseman, he should have a good amount of value on the trade market.
Every team could use the offensive skills that Phaneuf brings to the ice. He's a good playmaker, has a powerful shot, excels on the power play and he's capable of playing over 25 minutes every game.
Phaneuf also brings a lot of toughness and physicality to each shift and has lots of experience as a leader. His defense is sub-par at times, but he's not a terrible player in his own end.
Teams are desperate for defenseman in this grueling shortened season, so Phaneuf's value may never be higher than it is now.
The 27-year-old defenseman has a $6.5 million cap hit, and even if he's willing to sign a contract that has a smaller salary than the one he's been earning in his current deal, how much of a paycut would he be willing to take?
Any salary over $5.5 million would be too much for the Leafs to pay Phaneuf, who is without question a top-four defenseman, but not a true No. 1 guy.
If Nonis can re-sign Phaneuf for a "fair price" (anywhere between $4.5-5.5 million), then the Leafs should keep their captain beyond next season, but it's unlikely that this will happen when there's several teams that need defensive depth and would probably pay him a higher salary.
Unlike the Kessel trade, the Leafs didn't give up much to acquire Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames in 2010. Matt Stajan is the only one of the four players traded to Calgary in the Phaneuf trade who is still on the Flames roster.
If the Leafs can get a roster player and a first-round pick in return for Phaneuf, then Nonis should make a deal. Since the 2013 draft class is loaded with depth and talent at every position, this is a good year to stockpile first-round picks.
One possible move for Nonis to consider is trading Phaneuf to the Los Angeles Kings in a deal involving young backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier. The Kings need another top-four defenseman with Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell suffering injuries over the first week of the season, and the Leafs need a young goaltender with star potential.
Quick Decisions Should be Made
Nonis and the Leafs cannot wait too long to trade these players because their value on the market will only lessen as they get closer to free agency.
It's impossible to get fair value for players when they are only a few months away from being UFAs.
For the Leafs to get the best possible prospects/draft picks in return and continue rebuilding with quality young players, Kessel and Phaneuf should be moved before the April 3 trade deadline.
Let's face it, the Leafs aren't going to be Stanley Cup contenders for several years. With that said, why would the team keep two star players when they can be traded for young players and/or draft picks that will accelerate the rebuild?
As hard as it may be for Leafs fans to hear, the best move Nonis can make is to trade Kessel and Phaneuf to acquire young talent, and use the team's 2013 first-round pick on a franchise player.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report, follow him on Twitter.
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