Who's shopping whom?

 

A month ago, there would have been no debate. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who began the season without a win in their first eight games, were the worst team in the National Hockey League. And with the exception of Phil Kessel, every player was believed to be up for sale. Not that anyone was asking.

 
 
 
 
 

A month ago, there would have been no debate. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who began the season without a win in their first eight games, were the worst team in the National Hockey League. And with the exception of Phil Kessel, every player was believed to be up for sale. Not that anyone was asking.

Of course, a lot has changed in the last three weeks, where the Leafs have picked up 14 of a possible 20 points. So much so that general manager Brian Burke, whose self-imposed holiday trade freeze begins today, is having difficulty deciding what to do with the team's many soon-to-be free agents.

Does he shop them around for draft picks? Does he try to sign them to new contracts? Or does he simply allow their current deals to expire?

"Obviously, the answer I give you today is different than after our 0-8 start," said Burke. "So we're in the process of finishing that evaluation, which of those guys we would like to extend and which we are going to cut loose at the deadline. And then the second thing will be what is a reasonable price for extending a certain player. If the price tag is not reasonable, then we'll unload him at the deadline."

The Leafs have 15 players -- 10 unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents -- whose contracts run out at the end of this season.

The most intriguing are forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan and Nikolai Kulemin, defenceman Ian White and goaltender Vesa Toskala. Any of those players could probably fetch a second-round draft choice or more at the March 3 trade deadline. Of course, depending on what position the team is in by then, it could be in the Leafs' best interest to re-sign them to new contracts.

"It's a work-in-progress for a lot of players," said Burke. "Players have improved so dramatically in the second month of the season from the first month that obviously it's changed our view."

After managing just one win in October, the perception was that the Leafs were more likely to win the draft lottery than a playoff spot.

Stajan, who was the team's top-line centre, was minus-7 during that time. Kulemin was a healthy scratch in four of the first 12 games. And Toskala had a league-worst 5.13 goals-against average and .836 save percentage.

It got to the point where Burke told the National Post in mid-November that "if this group can't get it done, then the next step is to send somebody down and bring up one of the kids."

The team responded. In the last 10 games, Toronto has suffered only two regulation losses. And though the roster is filled with players who are making positive contributions on a nightly basis, the Leafs' top line of Kessel, Stajan and Ponikarovsky appears to be carrying the offensive load with 14 goals and 28 points during that span.

"I think we have some chemistry going," Kessel said. "Stajan is starting to know where I'm going to be at and we're reading off each other. So it's been all right."

Ponikarovsky is on pace to reach the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. Stajan, meanwhile, is on pace to shatter his previous high of 16 goals in 2007-08. And both players appear poised for significant raises if they continue to find the back of the net.

"The thing is if you're going to think about that, it's just going to take your mind away from the game," said Ponikarovsky, who added it is too early to begin contract talks with the Leafs. "The only thing I can control is how I play. Everything else will take care of itself. For me, it doesn't change anything. I'm not going to think if I'm going to get traded or whatever."

With the free-agent pool shrinking with each passing day (Columbus's Rick Nash and Boston's Marc Savard have received contract extensions, while Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk is reportedly close to negotiating a long-term deal), Ponikarovsky and Stajan could end up being some of the bigger names available next summer.

"We anticipated that Savard was going to re-sign in Boston," Burke said. "We anticipated that Nash would re-sign. And we believe that there are pending UFAs that will also re-sign. But we also believe there will be quality players available on July 1st."

If the Leafs continue to win games and move up the standings, those quality players might already be in Toronto.

 
 
 
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