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Mirtle: With Kessel gone, biggest question for Leafs is who’s next?

Phil Kessel skates with the puck in overtime against the New York Islanders on March 9 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. After six trying years in Toronto with a Maple Leafs team that’s now slowly being pulled apart, Kessel is happy to have a ‘fresh start.’

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

In his first full day as a Pittsburgh Penguin, Phil Kessel made the media rounds in his new home with a series of phone calls to curious reporters.

Little of what was said was earth-shattering. He was surprised to be traded. He was excited to play with Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin. He intends to train with fitness guru Gary Roberts – now based in Pittsburgh – at some point this summer.

And he was happy – after six trying years in Toronto with a Maple Leafs team that's now slowly being pulled apart – to have a "fresh start."

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"I'm actually really excited about that part of it," Kessel told DKonPittsburghSports.com.

Now the Leafs Rebuild Watch 2015™ turns to everyone else.

After making a few decent short-term bets in free-agent flotsam on July 1, this is where the roster currently stands:

Twelve forwards, with newcomers P.A. Parenteau, Dan Winnik, Nick Spaling and Mark Arcobello filling in some of the blanks and Nazem Kadri awaiting a new contract.

Eight defencemen, after the additions of Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin and T.J. Brennan.

And the same two goalies of the past two seasons, Jonathan Bernier (who also needs a new deal) and James Reimer.

It's enough to start the season. It's enough to keep all of the kids down with the Marlies, too, which is the plan, because this won't be a pretty season minus Kessel.

It also leaves the Leafs with roughly $10.5-million in cap space – depending on what Kadri and Bernier sign for – to do something else.

There'll be even more than that if some of their big-ticket contracts are thrown overboard in the coming months.

Don't expect captain Dion Phaneuf to be one of them, however. It's not impossible he moves, but it appears improbable. When teams have asked about his availability in the past two weeks, they haven't been told no. Instead, the Leafs have requested a return that includes a good prospect and no salary retained on their books.

In the NHL's current climate, with a lot of free-agent defencemen signed and many teams settled on the blueline, that's a big ask for such a big contract. (Phaneuf has six years at $7-million a season remaining.)

Leafs coach Mike Babcock also wants to see what he can do with Phaneuf. Can he be more than he has been under Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle? In Phaneuf, Babcock sees a willing pupil, a player who works hard and buys in, but who is asked to do too much without a lot of help.

Maybe he can rehabilitate him? Maybe that helps the Leafs move Phaneuf at next year's trade deadline?

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For now, however, it appears he is staying put.

That really only leaves two other members of Toronto's long-standing "core" left to ponder: Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul.

Both would like to stay, or at least that was the sense before Kessel was dealt on Wednesday. The Leafs have been getting interest and even offers on Bozak now for a while, with the inquiring Arizona Coyotes the best fit until they signed Antoine Vermette.

(One neutral party familiar with what the Leafs were offered for Bozak said they were surprised they hadn't taken the deal.)

Lupul, however, is going to be a tougher player to move, primarily because of his extensive injury history and large contract. The Leafs will likely have to retain salary (bad) or accept a bad contract back (okay if it's two years or less).

The best play there may be to wait until the trade deadline, as Lupul did have suitors at that point back in March.

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For now, the Leafs can afford to be patient.

Around the NHL, a lot of teams are taking that stance. The free-agent frenzy on July 1 was much less frenzied than many expected, and by Day 2, the landscape was dead – save for the Washington Capitals acquiring T.J. Oshie in an odd deal with the St. Louis Blues.

There's a logjam of bad contracts and capped-out teams out there, which has created an anxious waiting game for the dozen or so good free agents – such as former Leafs defenceman Cody Franson – still available.

Teams, such as the Leafs, can take advantage of that. Toronto could, for example, acquire an unwanted player and an asset from a team contemplating a buyout, saving said team the cap penalty involved. There are interesting options, especially as the rare team that has money to spend to land picks and prospects.

The Kessel move was the big one, but the Leafs aren't done. This group of 22 players isn't going to be the 22 who are on the roster on opening day, not with so many other transactions happening around the league.

Their push to get younger – and not necessarily better right away – simply may take a while.

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