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Staying or Going? Remaking the Maple Leafs' Core After Playoff Exit

Jul 29, 2023Jul 29, 2023

It's never not dramatic in Toronto when it involves the Maple Leafs.

The Leafs were eliminated by the Florida Panthers 3-2 in overtime of Game 5 on Friday night, ushering in an offseason ripe for change. It's another year without a Stanley Cup, and while it was finally a season in which Toronto escaped the first round of the playoffs (for the first time since 2004), it bowed out quickly in the second round.

"We lose the series in the first three games," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. "I thought we played well enough to win the game [Friday night], but the first three games, we're in similar positions we were in Games 4 and 5, and we didn't handle the situations well and didn't capitalize on our chances. The margin for error is basically none because of our results in the first three games, so that's where we lose the series."

Losing in the playoffs has become all too common for the Maple Leafs, and they're in a precarious position. This is the fifth straight year they've tried to win a Cup with Kyle Dubas as the general manager as well as the core four of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner. It's the fourth straight season that's ended in disappointment with Keefe behind the bench.

Everyone thought something had to give when the Leafs lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games last year, but they ran it back. That doesn't seem likely now, and there are questions to ask regarding who's staying and who's going, so let's get right to it.

Everything starts at the top, and the situation surrounding Kyle Dubas is curious.

He's in the final year of his contract, but he's yet to sign an extension. Teams don't usually stick with a lame-duck GM. Everything leading up to these playoffs made it seem like the Leafs' success, or lack thereof, would be a referendum on Dubas.

Yes, Toronto finally got over the first-round hump, but a meek exit threw everything out of whack. It was mostly excusable to keep everyone together after losing to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, especially since Tampa Bay went back to the Cup Final shortly thereafter.

But after five seasons under Dubas' management, winning one playoff round does not reflect well, and his inability to find a consistent goalie has been his biggest failure. Last offseason's trade for the oft-injured Matt Murray is a glaring example. Murray was expected to carry the load in 2022-23, but he only played 26 regular-season games.

Though the Leafs are always going to spend to the salary cap, there are questions about how well that money has been spent, even with the core four.

Dubas made it through this season and the playoffs without a contract extension, but the repeated disappointment makes it feel like change is coming. If that move is made, figuring out who can handle arguably the biggest executive job in the NHL will become an even bigger question.

Leafs upper management has had a lot of time to consider everything, and Dubas could have an extension by now. If they're going to shake things up and demand better, it will start at the top.

Sheldon Keefe was brought aboard in the middle of the 2019-20 season to replace Mike Babcock, and he came in with a background in junior hockey. He had won a Calder Cup as head coach of the Maple Leafs' AHL team, the Toronto Marlies, in 2018. He also worked for Dubas with the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL.

That's why it stands to reason if Dubas is out the door, Keefe will be right behind him. After all, most new GMs get to pick the coach they want.

There are other reasons why Keefe could be let go. You could argue he was outcoached by Jon Cooper and Paul Maurice in the playoffs. Some of his line choices during games and lineup decisions ahead of them raised questions, but it's difficult to argue with a coach whose regular-season record is 166-71-30. That's a lot of wins, and he's led the Leafs to the playoffs each season.

But this is where the standard for excellence comes into play, and the peculiarity of coaching the Maple Leafs does as well. Yes, he's done very well with the teams he's had, but the argument can be made that the lack of postseason success reflects on him and how he gets those players ready. Having a great regular season year in and year out is an accomplishment, but if that team consistently falls short in the playoffs, it can expose weaknesses from within.

That is how Keefe will be judged. The bar for success in Toronto isn't just about making the playoffs, as it had been more than a decade ago. It's about winning a Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967. Anything short of that is not getting the job done.

John Tavares' dream when he became a free agent in 2018 was to go home and play for the Maple Leafs. He was named captain and has been a solid No. 2 center, scoring 354 points in 360 regular-season games.

He'll be 33 years old when the 2023-24 season starts, and he'll have two more years left on his seven-year, $77 million contract. He just put up 80 points this season, and even with an $11 million cap hit, that's really good production. It's not $11 million per season's worth, but it's very good. And that's where the rub is with deciding whether he stays or goes. He stays mostly because it would be a hard sell for another team to take him on at that price.

Even if the Maple Leafs were to eat part of the contract in a trade, it would still be a major investment to acquire Tavares. The Leafs would likely be happy freeing up space against the cap, but finding a team to give up a player or pick needed for Toronto to be satisfied to take on some of his salary would more than likely be a no-go.

None of this is to say Tavares is a bad player. He's far from being bad, and any team that added him would benefit. It's just that he's getting older, and players beyond the age of 30 hit the wall at some point with no way to predict when. The Maple Leafs can afford to have an $11 million second-line center, but the vast majority of the NHL cannot.

We realize we looked at potential future places for Auston Matthews to play, but the team that needs him the most is Toronto.

The Leafs sank to the bottom of the NHL in 2016 to have the best shot at drafting Matthews, and they did that. Matthews has been a brilliant player, and a big reason his numbers took a hit this season is because of injury. But Matthews is the face of the Leafs and one of the biggest and best players in the NHL. He can fill the net with goals, and he's strong enough with his puck possession to not be a liability on defense. You couldn't ask for better.

The problem, however, is that Matthews' contract is up next summer, and he'll be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Players that head into the final years of their deals should have an extension waiting for them. Come July 1, the Leafs will be able to get that bit of business taken care of if they so choose. If they don't, they're going to have to make a blockbuster trade so they don't lose him and get nothing in return for the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft.

If Toronto doesn't believe Matthews is its guy, it should trade him this summer. If the Leafs are on board, however, they may have bigger problems elsewhere within the organization.

Mitchell Marner is a brilliant player. He is an incredible passer and has a tremendous shot, and this year, he's a finalist for the Selke Trophy as one of the NHL's top defensive forwards. He piles up points like few others in the league can...which is what makes him the perfect candidate for a trade.

Marner, like Tavares, has two years left on his contract, and it comes with a cap hit just under $11 million per season. It's a big price tag for a big-ticket player. He's had three seasons with 90 or more points, and he's broken the 30-goal barrier two seasons in a row. At 26 years old, he is in the prime of his career. So, why trade him? Like a Facebook relationship status, it's complicated.

Marner can go from playing like one of the best players in the NHL to being a non-factor. That kind of duality was present during these playoffs, when he went from being a star against Tampa Bay, piling up 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in six games, to being virtually absent against Florida with three points (goal, two assists) in five games. He had a goal and an assist in the 2-1 Game 4 win in Sunrise.

Marner said after Game 5 that he and his core four teammates all have years on their contracts so they should be back together again. The problem is the Leafs clearly need roster improvement and don't have the cap freedom to make it work. Trading Marner would be an easy sell, and his beefy salary would allow the Leafs to add the depth they need.

No one player on the roster over the past few seasons has been included in proposed offseason trades more than William Nylander. Stunningly, he's the second-oldest member of the core four behind Tavares and has the lowest cap hit of those four players. It makes him the easiest choice to work into a trade.

The problem with that, and perhaps this is recency bias speaking, is no other Leafs forward made things happen against Florida the way Nylander did. He sparked Toronto to a Game 4 win and tied Game 5 with his short-side snipe past Sergei Bobrovsky.

Now, there are reasons to hesitate as well. He's a hot-and-cold scorer during the season and was in the playoffs as well. He was huge in the first four games against Tampa Bay but then went without points in the final two games and was pointless in Games 1 and 2 against Florida.

Leafs fans sometimes want to pull their hair out while watching him, but his improvement in the past three or four seasons is noticeable, and he's become a more consistent producer on offense. The Leafs need players who can produce a lot of goals and do so without cap hits in the eight figures, and Nylander checks both boxes.

Moving him may make the team and some fans feel better, but 80-85-point production for under $7 million per season usually only comes via drafting and developing your own players...which is just what Toronto did with Nylander.