The Maple Leafs ran it back again. It backfired again. What now?


BOSTON — The call came last summer.

It was from the new general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brad Treliving, and he had a message for Mitch Marner.

“He made it pretty clear that he wanted to keep our core together,” Marner told The Athletic last fall. “He trusted our core.”

What now for the Leafs and that core after yet another early playoff exit?

“It’s an empty feeling right now,” William Nylander said in what’s become an all too familiar setting for the Leafs, an empty dressing room after a painful playoff loss.

Nylander’s stick, emblazoned with “Willy Styles,” was still standing against a wall in a corner. It wasn’t long after Game 7, and another first-round exit. The mood was dour.

“Look, I don’t think there’s an issue with the core,” Nylander said. “I think we were f—— right there all series battling — battling hard. We got it to Game 7 OT. It’s a s—– feeling.”

Auston Matthews called this particular Leafs team the tightest he’s ever been a part of. “I feel like we say that every year, but it truly was an incredible group, incredibly tight,” he said.

“We’re right there,” John Tavares said. “It’s a very small difference.”

The results are what they are though. The Leafs haven’t gotten close at all. Running it back with this core — Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Morgan Rielly — has not worked.

The Leafs ran it back after they were embarrassed by an inferior Columbus Blue Jackets team in 2020. They ran it back after they allowed a 3-1 series lead to melt away against the Montreal Canadiens, another inferior opponent, in 2021. The Leafs ran it back yet again after they lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning a year after that. And just when it looked like they would pivot last spring after dropping a five-game second-round series to the Florida Panthers, team president Brendan Shanahan fired then-GM Kyle Dubas and insisted again — with Treliving moving into the GM’s chair — that the core was staying put.

“Just being different doesn’t solve something,” Shanahan said when he announced Dubas’ firing.

And yet, clearly, the status quo didn’t solve anything either. If anything, just the opposite: The Leafs were dispatched again in the first round. Clawing back from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 doesn’t change the fact that running it back one more time backfired.

Is this — finally — the time the Leafs pivot in a major way? And if so, who gets to make that call? And what exactly does it mean?

The question of running it back has to include the member of the core — management division — that never gets mentioned: Shanahan.


Johnston: Leafs’ latest playoff exit makes it clear. Time is up for the Shanaplan

No one is more responsible for the Leafs running back the same top end of the roster for so long without playoff results than him. If there was anyone who believed in the power of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly to get it done, it was him.

He believed over and over and over again despite the results.

After 10 seasons as team president, Shanahan’s Leafs have won one playoff round, which puts them in the same bracket as many of the worst teams in the league over the last decade.

It’s really kind of stunning.

Playoff wins since the 2014-15 season

The Leafs have been a top team in the regular season, and Shanahan deserves credit for that, but the goal isn’t to win the regular season. It’s to win in the playoffs and sticking with the same core group hasn’t yielded anything close to a Stanley Cup.

Losing in seven games in the first round isn’t “right there” as Tavares suggested.

Shanahan met with the new president of MLSE, Keith Pelley, earlier this week. Pelley should be asking why it is that Shanahan stuck with this particular group for so long when the results weren’t there when it mattered and, crucially, what he plans to do about it now after another defeat.

Should he even get that opportunity after a decade’s worth of chances?

Shanahan’s thinking went something like this: If the Leafs traded one of their great players away every time they had a playoff disappointment, eventually they might be left with no great players.

He believed that given enough time, enough scars, and enough cracks in the postseason, the stars would eventually come through and the team would be rewarded with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967.

The problem: The stars weren’t starry enough. Not when it mattered. And in a top-heavy system, like the one the Leafs have been operating with, the stars have to be stars when it matters. They didn’t get there enough, including this spring against Boston.

Shanahan liked to say that sticking to the plan was the hard part in Toronto.

Sticking to the plan for this long though has proven naive. Again and again, it ignored the evidence, which stated, emphatically, that while the players in question were talented — arguably the most talented the franchise had ever seen — for whatever reason the mix didn’t work when the games mattered most.

Something was missing. And the Leafs could have tried to address it at some point along the way. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a sledgehammer to the core, but a scalpel. One piece carved out, another different sort of piece slotted in.

Now, something will almost certainly change, at least a year too late.

The extenuating circumstances of this series — Nylander’s absence for Games 1-3 due to migraines, an illness and injury that derailed Matthews and knocked him out for Games 5 and 6 — won’t matter. They will be as lost to history as Tavares missing almost the entirety of that Montreal series to injury or Sergei Bobrovsky becoming a superhero again all of a sudden last spring.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won a Stanley Cup without Kris Letang in 2017. Steven Stamkos played one playoff game for the Tampa Bay Lightning during their Stanley Cup run in 2020. The teams that win find a way.

The Leafs had an opportunity to pivot in whatever direction they liked last offseason before no-movement clauses kicked in on the contracts of Marner, Nylander, and Matthews.

The date for that was July 1.

Had Dubas remained as GM, and maybe even increased his control of the franchise, the Leafs may have finally shook up their core by moving one of those players (Marner or Nylander) out. Instead, everything that mattered, including head coach Sheldon Keefe, stayed the same.

Now a decision regarding the core feels obvious.

Last summer, the Leafs signed Matthews to a four-year extension that will soon make him the highest-paid player in the league. Nylander got a full eight-year extension in January. Both players have full no-movement clauses.

So does Tavares.

The captain of the Leafs will be entering the last year of the seven-year contract he signed back in 2018. Born and raised in Toronto, and now with a growing young family, Tavares expressed no interest in leaving last summer when the prospect was raised by media.

Rielly likewise has a no-movement clause on a contract that still has another six seasons left on it.

Which leaves Marner, who’s eligible to sign an extension on July 1.

He, too, holds a no-movement clause, which means he only goes elsewhere if he wants to. Which means, at best, a limited pool of teams the Leafs can move him to — and thus, a limited pool of assets they can fetch in return.

Think of it this way: How many teams out there will be interested in a) taking on Marner’s $10.9 million cap hit for next season, b) want to pay him even more than that on an extension c) have attractive assets they would be willing to trade and assets that would be of interest to the Leafs?

All of which is to say, the Leafs boxed themselves in by waiting as long as they did. It’s going to be hard to make a good trade involving Marner, if that’s the route they take.

Does the Maple Leafs’ future include Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews together? (Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

If not after the Montreal series, it felt like time for Marner after last season. He said all the right things about wanting to be a Leaf, to stay a Leaf, but throughout this past season, he looked a lot like someone who wasn’t enjoying all that comes with being a Leaf — the pressure, the scrutiny, the criticism, the relentless demand for more.

Marner’s poor start to the season was notable for how joyless he appeared, how devoid of enthusiasm and energy.

He finished with three points in seven games against the Bruins. He wasn’t the offensive difference-maker the Leafs needed him to be, especially early in the series when Nylander was absent.

He might be just as ready for a change as the Leafs are. He was prepared for the possibility last summer.

Absent extension talks, and the possibility of a long-term future in Toronto, he might be convinced to accept a trade elsewhere.

Then the question becomes: What should the Leafs look to fetch in return? It’s tempting to say a defenceman, and that might not be the wrong answer if it’s the right defenceman. But it’s not as if this franchise is stocked with high-end forwards beyond Matthews and Nylander.

Can the front office, whoever’s running it, thread the needle and acquire a higher-end forward and a defenceman? And what type of forward anyway? If the point is to try to change the “mix” does it have to be a forward of a different skill set than Marner? Someone harder and heavier to play against?

Or, do the Leafs just seek out the best possible player, period, presumably earning less than Marner, and use the remaining cap space elsewhere?

Are draft picks part of the package? Do the Leafs need to make picks part of the package given their limited supply?

And again, which team has what the Leafs want, meets Marner’s desires if he wants to leave at all, and wants to pay him?

If they are the two key players still running the show, can Shanahan and Treliving get this right? Their first season together as president and GM didn’t go great. They failed to adequately address needs last summer and then let the trade deadline come and go without any meaningful reinforcements, which led to yet another first-round loss.

Can they execute a Marner trade in a way that makes the Leafs better, or at worst, different?

As Treliving himself said last summer when the prospect of moving core players came up at his introductory press conference, “You can throw a body under the tarmac and it might look good for a headline, but are you getting any better? At the end of the day, it’s about getting better. And just being different doesn’t necessarily make you better.”

Not anymore. The Leafs need to be different and get better at the same time. Running it back — again — isn’t an option.

(Top photo of John Tavares, Tyler Bertuzzi and Morgan Rielly: Michael Dwyer / The Associated Press)

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