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Exploring the idea that not all of the big four will be with the Leafs next season

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
7 months ago
It’s a joyous day for the #TradeNylander crowd when a prominent insider shares the thought that one of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander will not be with the Leafs next season. And while this wasn’t based on rumour or hearsay, and rather solely on the independent thought of Chris Johnston, it’s an idea that warrants some level of exploration because it would mark a significant change in direction for the Leafs.
You can hear Chris Johnston’s radio hit for the full context of the discussion here, and it bears repeating, this is not a rumour.
The idea that the Leafs wouldn’t have the big four next season is nothing new. That was generally the consensus belief coming into this season, that nothing short of a Stanley Cup win would keep the band together, and the Leafs are nearing a time when a new direction is going to need to be taken. It’s also not surprising that when looking at what the Leafs will do, Auston Matthews’s name is swiftly removed as the big four player that could be on the move. The only way this is remotely entertained is if he has made it abundantly clear to management that when he hits unrestricted free agency he wishes to play in the U.S. and even then the Leafs would likely spend the next two years trying to change his mind and reach out to Justin Bieber to do the same.
John Tavares’ contract is certainly the least appealing of the four players, and being the oldest of the group there is certainly some level of concern about the decline of play as well associated with him. His salary is now well below his cap hit, but his full no movement clause would eliminate him the possibility of being moved unless his family suddenly decided they wished to needlessly uproot themselves from their hometown. Honestly, for all the concerns around Tavares, and dirt kicking around his contract, having Matthews and Tavares as the one-two punch in the middle is the strongest part of this team. Wingers are more of a luxury, and that’s why at the end of the day when we’re talking about who could be on the move, it’s really: do the Leafs want to move Nylander, Marner, or both?
I’m not looking to spark a Nylander vs. Marner debate, as both now play up to their contracts. Both have had tough spots in the season. Marner has been critical to the success of the penalty kill and has been an elite playmaker to Matthews, while Nylander carried the Leafs through the early part of the season, and might be the second-best Leaf at driving a line behind Auston Matthews. The pros of trading Nylander are you likely don’t need to take back unwanted salary, the pros of trade Marner would be the Leafs can much more radically address their needs by moving out the higher salary. Both have some merit.

Does one of the big four need to be moved?

The answer is probably no, but it means a lot more moves at the midlevel of the roster. Jake Muzzin is a player that the Leafs need to consider moving this summer, and his drop in actual money owed, especially after his signing bonus has been paid, could make that a possibility. Alexander Kerfoot’s career year could make him an asset as well. At his best, he’s been a player who can slide in anywhere and do his thing, but at the same time he’s a player who has never found a permanent spot on the Leafs’ lineup card, and moving on from him seemingly makes sense heading into his contract year. Kerfoot is another player whose cap hit is higher than his salary and would appeal to a number of teams around the league for that reason. Players like Justin Holl could also find themselves on the move. Petr Mrazek, either via trade or via contract buyout could free up space for the Leafs to make significant changes to their roster as well. The Leafs will also get mild bumps from the salary cap increasing to $82.5M from 81.5M and finally, Phil Kessel’s $1.2M of retained salary will come off the books.
Potentially if all of these things come together the Leafs could be looking at $17.1M to work within overhauling the roster, in addition to the space they already have through their current free agents having expired contracts (roughly another $10M). Obviously, there isn’t any shortage of roster spots that need addressing in that scenario, but the flexibility is there, as are affordable Marlies like Robertson, Anderson, etc. to fill in some of the holes.
In short, the Leafs can keep the solid foundation of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Rielly, and Brodie, and build around it.

Why they should still entertain the idea

Beyond making the offseason a little more exciting, there are other reasons. Flexibility in the salary cap world is something that it would be nice to see Kyle Dubas wield. Making star players available likely opens up a better class of players the Leafs could receive in return as well and the Leafs might be able to address priority areas like defense or goaltending via a major trade rather than picking through what’s available in free agency and potentially paying a premium for it.
The Leafs may also simply be ready to move on at this point and sometimes change for change’s sake gets a bad rap (well, as long as the return is decent, and some form of actual direction follows, it’s not bad.)
There are also plenty of reasons not to entertain this idea. If the Leafs look to trade one of these players, it’s very unlikely Toronto is getting a better player back in the deal. It’s going to be some combination of cap space, futures, and addressing a more critical need that would make up the return, not a better player.
There is nothing wrong with having six really good players that make up your core, and in the Tavares-Nylander pairing’s case, it is just either a matter of finding their Bunting or building the best possible roster for next season around the idea of Tavares and Nylander being split up. Giving up high-end talent because the results aren’t there yet means taking a pretty risky step backward.
Still, taking risks isn’t a bad thing either. Chris Johnston is a smart dude, and his decision to throw something like this out there isn’t something he’d do if he wasn’t prepared to own it. There is a lot of merit to the idea that the time has come for the Leafs to look at a drastic change. DeRozan for Leonard, McGriff/Fernandez for Carter/Alomar are certainly positive examples of Toronto teams taking a big leap on a change of direction and going from being good to being champions. A Leafs’ move of significance certainly doesn’t guarantee results but shows that 3rd in the Atlantic isn’t the organization’s goal.
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