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Why the Leafs' decision on Kessel will tip their hand

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing a decision that will either drive their franchise off a cliff or maintain mediocrity through a rebuild. Choosing between the lesser of two evils is what will ultimately show which path management is set on for the future.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The hardest decisions to make are those which force you to choose between the future, or the present. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a position to crumble the franchise that can barely keep up with the rest of the league or keep their star player who can keep them from drowning.

The future is what the franchise is looking at first and foremost, Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and Mike Babcock are looking at a team that has failed to meet any expectation of stability be it winning or losing through the 2014-15 season.

The rumour mill never stoping turning in Toronto, and of course Phil Kessel's name is up for consideration. Trading your best player for draft picks seems like a painful way to send off a player that will come back and bite you sooner rather than later. This is the decision management faces, or, what the media thinks management is facing.

Kessel was acquired by Brian Burke from the Boston Bruins in 2009. As he sat until Christmas after undergoing shoulder surgery and read the newspaper in the players box, the pressure was already mounting.

Kessel didn't care. In 70 games with the Maple Leafs, he scored 55 points. His first season was a success and the Maple Leafs were eager to extend the young and thriving Kessel. Eight years, which kicked in this past season.

At the time of the extension former general manager Dave Nonis described Kessel as an absolute asset. "He's quiet, he's not as outgoing as some people in a Canadian market would like, but he's a great teammate and well-liked by everybody in our room. We wouldn't have looked to extend Phil if we didn't think he was a great fit in Toronto."

In 222 games with the Bruins through three seasons, Kessel scored 0.56 points per game. In his six years with the Maple Leafs, Kessel has scored 0.88 points per game and is rewarded with an average of 19 minutes ice time per season. He's the best player the Maple Leafs have and he's 27 years old.

In cities like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, Boston, New York, etc., there are high expectations and each move of each player is carefully dissected. It's hard to get things past people in such large and thriving markets. Everyone is an expert, to take a page out of Chris Pronger's book.

The time to trade Kessel has come and gone. The organization passed up Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton (their draft picks which they traded for Kessel if anyone had forgotten) and decided to forego the longterm for the short term. There was a commitment made that could be undone by new management who have a different vision for what the Maple Leafs are.

The Chicago Blackhawks had their own issues with sliding under the cap in 2010 and subsequently moving forward. They targeted their most important players in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and signed them to contracts to ensure they would be around for the long haul.

The four players have been critical to the Blackhawks' three Stanley Cup Championships through the last six seasons. After their first championship they let players like Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg go via trade but still maintained a strong core that carried them through another five playoff runs and two Stanley Cups.

The Maple Leafs do not have the luxury of a stacked minor league system. They have, for the most part, been a team looking for quick fixes, five-year plans, and bandaids hoping they'll hold until April. Trading Kessel out of town at this point in time would be a death sentence for the organization.

Shanahan and Babcock have admitted it's going to be a slow process to get the Leafs back to their glory days, but it will be worth it. Without Kessel, how tolerable will the team be to watch even with the best coach in the league behind the bench?

The Maple Leafs have identified Kessel as their best player, he's the one who continually competes at the top of the league in points, goals, and assists yet his name is being called out for a trade. If Kessel was 30 years old I could understand the desire to trade him as he enters the latter half of his career, but he's 27.

He has a lot of hockey left in him including one of the most potent wrist shots in the league. Why trade a player as valuable as him? Where are you going to find another just like him to carry your franchise? There is no guarantee there will be another.

I am fully prepared for misery. I am expecting the worst, but trading Kessel will show management is committed to a very long and painful transition from mediocre team to excellence and it will be anything but exciting to follow.