You know things are really bad when you're so bad, you're bad at being bad.
That's where the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves as they return from a four-game road trip through California and Missouri bruised, sunburned and winless. As James Mirtle points out, the Leafs essentially prolonged their playoff-bubble misery by signing a bunch of spare parts in the off-season. They were destined all along to scratch and claw to, say, a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. At the same time, by signing the likes of Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli to highly tradable one-year deals, GM Dave Nonis and president Brendan Shanahan covered their bottoms in case the bottom felt out. If they lacked confidence in the team then, was it worth the slap-dash solution? Why not let the whole thing collapse and guarantee a high pick in a phenomenal draft class?
Either way, each loss puts the Leafs closer to full seller mode, with the March 2 trade deadline visible on the distant horizon. Leaf Nation will start to buzz over who should stay and who should go. Here are 10 candidates to consider, starting with the least likely.
10. PHIL KESSEL
If Toronto shops Kessel, it surely will find a taker, even with his $8-million cap hit. That's because Kessel is one of the best goal scorers on the planet. Slumps, fitness and media skirmishes aside, the man gets his numbers. Do the Leafs really want to trade someone with more goals over the past seven seasons than everyone but Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry? These types don't grow on trees. The deficiencies in Kessel's game stand out because he doesn't have enough star players surrounding him and taking on defensive responsibility. One of my colleagues offered an interesting comparison: without Jonathan Toews, would the holes in Patrick Kane's game and Kane's propensity to slump be less forgivable?
9. DION PHANEUF
Just because his name pops up often in rumor mills doesn't make a Phaneuf trade realistic. He still has six years remaining on his contract at a $7-million cap hit, and the frontloading means he'll collect an $8-million salary next year and $7.5 million the year after that. His limited no-trade clause, which activated at the start of the season, permitted him to make a list of 12 teams to which he would not accept a deal. That leaves 17 official suitors, with the list likely being smaller depending on if any "buyer" teams are on Phaneuf's veto list. He could help a contender on its second pairing, but a trade is unlikely, especially this season, unless Toronto eats significant salary.
8. TYLER BOZAK
Bozak and Kessel live together, and Bozak often acts as Kessel's mouthpiece, so it stands to reason if one gets shipped out, the other would be far more willing to accept a deal out of the Big Smoke. Bozak functions better as a No. 2 pivot than a No. 1, but he's a desirable buy, signed through 2017-18 at a highly reasonable $4.2-million cap hit. Bozak has a modified no-trade clause (13 teams), but since a Bozak trade would mean the Leafs are really blowin' it up, I suspect he'd be willing to waive it.
7. JONATHAN BERNIER
Bernier has been everything the Leafs hoped he would be. He's arguably the least to blame for the team's struggles. He's entering his prime at 26. He's also a pending restricted free agent who will command a raise over his $2.9-million cap hit. Bernier is good enough to build around, but he plays the sport's most replaceable position. If a goaltending-starved team comes looking for a starter and Toronto decides to start from scratch, there are worse names to move. A Bernier-less Leaf squad would also do a better job tanking down the stretch. James Reimer makes some sense as a trade candidate, too, but who wants to pay him $2.3 million next year when he'd likely be a backup?
6. ROMAN POLAK
Polak has worked out decently for the Leafs. He's tough as nails, and the stay-at-home blueliner's five goals are a career high already. He's only signed for one more season and could slot in on a playoff team's third pairing. His game is tailored for spring warfare.
5. JOFFREY LUPUL
Lupul has more trade rumors swirling around him than just about any Leaf, with most linking him to Dallas, but an actual deal must be seen to be believed. He's undeniably damaged goods, as useful as he can be when healthy, and Nonis will have a tough time asking a team to pay Lupul $5.25 million for three more years. Yuck. Here's another deal that would likely require Toronto eating some salary.
4. DANIEL WINNIK
Handy checker with size, pending unrestricted free agent, best Corsi Close rating on the team. What's not to like? Teams making calls on Winnik could also inquire about Peter Holland, who has another year left on his deal and has proven himself a capable NHL forward, with 26 points in 77 games as a Leaf.
3. CODY FRANSON
Franson stands to be Toronto's most polarizing figure as the trade deadline approaches. He's been the team's best all-around defenseman this season and he's still just 27. He's an unrestricted free agent this July, however, and with Marc Staal off the market, Franson looks like the league's top prize at his position, as Mike Green is older and more rickety, while Johnny Boychuk has every reason to re-sign with the Islanders. Can the Leafs risk failing to retain Franson? Especially when they can get a nice return for him at the deadline? If Shanahan and Nonis aren't confident they can re-sign Franson, it's time to shop him hard.
2. MIKE SANTORELLI
Santorelli has been one of Toronto's nicest stories this season but, like Winnik's, his contract had a self-destruct built in from the start. Santorelli's one-year deal expires July 1. He's just the type of player to cash in for a cheap draft pick, a nice fit on contender as a checker who can score a little bit. And if Leafs are really in love with Santorelli, there's nothing to say they can't bring him back for next season, a-la Buffalo with Matt Moulson last year.
1. JAKE GARDINER
Gardiner has the best trade value of the "realistic" candidates (the top six names) on this list, because (a) he's signed four more seasons at a $4.05-million AAV, (b) he's only 24 and (c) plenty of already-rumored suitors believe they can harness his considerable talent. He seems to have lost confidence this season, and he corrals opposing attackers like a strainer does boiling water, but he's a beautiful skater who can move the puck. The more experienced and well-rounded Franson fits better on a playoff contender than Gardiner, meaning Gardiner is more likely to be moved in the off-season. Still, it would almost be more surprising to see him in a Leaf uniform than not come next October. Gardiner's skill set is redundant in Toronto. Morgan Rielly does the same things, but better and more responsibly.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin