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The case for running it back with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ core

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
9 months ago
I feel like I have the luxury of fresh eyes on the Leafs situation. I’ve been away all weekend and didn’t witness the highs and lows of Game 5, I’ve been able to sit out the hastily crafted “this group can’t win together” diatribes, and now I get to come in fresh just as the locker room cleanout day sound clips will infuriate everyone listening to the point of wanting to blow up the team and put P.A. Parenteau back on the top line. The Leafs do frustration very well. Maybe we can make them a trophy for that.
Until that happens, I’m here to weigh-in on what will be one of the most insufferable debates of the summer, or at least up until the draft, and that is what the Leafs should do with their core.
For my purposes, I’m including Morgan Rielly in the core. He is in every way except not being a forward and he’s practically that too, so when talking about what the Leafs should or shouldn’t do here it’s about Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, and Rielly. That’s not to be disrespectful to T.J. Brodie or Ilya Samsonov who clearly play major and important roles on the Leafs as well, but Brodie as a defenseman entering the last year of his deal in his mid-30s and Samsonov still figuring out who is in net doesn’t necessarily say “core” to me.
So let’s start with the things that are outside of the Leafs control and that is the free agency market. If Toronto is in fact going to blow up their core group, it is much more likely to be for futures and cap space than making a trade with another team that has exactly what they feel they need to move forward. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think in any situation looking at the UFA market has to be a part of the decision process. The are 9 UFA players with 20+ goals (one of them is Michael Bunting.) There are only 7 UFA players with 50+ points. There was no one over 30 goals and no one over 70 points. Your core replacement isn’t coming via free agency.
Speaking of things outside the Leafs control, the Tampa and Boston cap situations are disastrous heading into this summer. Both teams are competent and will find a way to stay good, but both are primed for a step back in 2023-24. Keeping the Leafs core intact and pretty much being able to run back who they want to puts Toronto in a situation to duke it out with the Panthers again next year and sadly I mean that as a good thing. The Leafs have the talent to remain at the top of the Atlantic, the East, and the league. Walking away from that is tough, but I think it’s important to factor in the hurt of playoff disappointment as losing Game 5 in May is what they should be trying to avoid not making sure things are going well in Game 56 in February.
Then there’s the matter of the core themselves, and we’ll take a look at their situations one by one.
After a season as the whipping boy, Morgan Rielly has reminded Leafs fans why he should stick around. He’s one of the few positive stories to come out of the playoffs. He’s locked in with a no-movement clause and wants to stay a Leaf, so even if you think the Leafs should move on from him, good luck. Keeping Rielly around is a no brainer anyway.
The no-movement clause is also a huge factor when it comes to John Tavares and it’s safe to say the captain will be back next year as well. The Florida series might have some people bummed out about that, but he was a crucial part of the success against Tampa and remains a 30-goal scorer, close to a point per game player. Yeah, there’s a bit of an overpay, but it’s not significant unless you are making disingenuous comparisons to overachieving bargain players. The Leafs always knew the last years of his contract were going to be the tough ones and honestly, so far he hasn’t made it that tough.
Auston Matthews. This one shouldn’t be too hard to explain either. He’s Auston Matthews, you can already put him down for 40 goals next year and the narrative around him is going to mirror that of Alex Ovechkin until he finally gets his playoff moment. I’m not going to say that Matthews can’t do more in the playoffs. He’s good for the most part but hasn’t been game breaking, and I guess that criticism applies to most of the players being discussed here too.
There are few players in Leafs history that are comparable to Auston Matthews and the Leafs won’t be the one looking to end the relationship. If Matthews doesn’t have a contract extension this summer, the tougher conversations can begin, but anything short of that means keeping him.
I’m going to lump Marner and Nylander in together because the reality is that if the Leafs did blow up the core, it would be one of their wingers on the move. On one hand, you have Mitch Marner, a local kid, a great regular season player, and more and more you can make a case that he is the best regular season Leaf. The catch seems to be that his skin doesn’t seem thick enough for the Toronto market and the cute little plays he tries in the regular season can be infuriating in the playoffs when there seemed to be a straight forward option for a play instead. Also, he costs almost $11M.
On the other hand, there’s William Nylander. In many ways, he’s perfect for this market. He has taken some of the harshest media criticism without letting it get to him, he’s versatile enough that he has been one of the Leafs best playoff performers. He’s also significantly cheaper than the other forwards (at least for one more year.) It’s that next contract thing with Nylander along with the fact that he’s not strong defensively that put him a step behind the other core guys when it comes to expandability. Of course, Marner is more expensive now and will likely be more expensive on his next contract, so that argument is a little flawed, but there is also that Marner is good for 15 more points a year and solid defensive play that separates him from Nylander, so at the end of the day a potential core shakeup would likely be the simplest action, and that’s trading Nylander.
When it comes to moving on from the Core Four it is also largely going to be dependent on who the coach and the GM are of the Leafs. If Keefe and Dubas return, they would likely want to keep their group together for as long as they can, although I guess there should be some real discussion about whether these are the right players for Keefe or if Keefe is the right coach for these players when deciding if he’ll be back.
For the most part, this is the group that has made people believe in the Leafs’ chances, so making changes isn’t going to be particularly easy. This is the core that made people think the Leafs could do more and blowing it up runs the risk of achieving even less. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 in that you might need the core to make the playoffs but that same core holds Toronto back in the playoffs.
I’m generally all for bold moves and a summer ago, I was very much on Team Blow It Up, but the realities have changed for the Leafs. The Atlantic Division is wider open, the lack of potential upgrades, and the fact that Toronto will enter the summer with some cap space to make some interesting changes if they desire leads me to believe that toying with the core is a step backward.
There has to be some curiosity about what this group can do with Matthew Knies for a full year. There should still be some interest in what Nick Robertson can bring, and we’ve just scratched the surface of Joseph Woll might be capable of. Positive changes are already coming and adding high end entry level players to offset the $40M commitment to four forwards really helps balance things out.
Having talented players isn’t holding the Leafs back and accusing them of not knowing how to win seems silly. They haven’t won, there is nothing to say that will win next time, but blowing up the most talented Leafs core we’ve seen in a generation without a concrete plan seems like a quick way to doom this franchise.

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