The unpopular truth about these Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs Management Team is scheduled to hold a press conference today. This briefing will give a sense of direction regarding where the team is headed. Pictured: Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Photo Credit: Mitch Marner/X. 


The calendar may be approaching mid-May, but in spite of the sights and signs of spring, it feels more like early February. Hockey fans across the Bill Murray universe were treated to an encore performance of the Toronto Maple Leafs versus Boston Bruins Game 7 last Saturday night. The result, delivered in a manner that has never been more bitter, should go down as the final straw, making it unthinkable to “run it back” for yet another season of painstaking failure. 

There’s a lot of finger-pointing and passing of the buck going on. Internally, it is happening mostly behind closed doors. The fan-base is weighing in more publicly, as it should. However, the prescriptions of the blue and white faithful, heartfelt as they may be, are not recognizing some of the most serious and glaring problems with the team as it currently stands. We can start with the top brass and work our way down, but consider yourself warned, this analysis will only get blunter and more controversial the further you read. 

For five seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs President of Hockey Operations (Brendan Shanahan), General Manager (Kyle Dubas) and Head Coach (Sheldon Keefe) boasted a combined total of 0 playoff series wins on their off-ice resumes. Brad Treliving, the former Calgary Flames GM who took over following Dubas’ departure last spring, brings more of a veteran presence to the table, but these past half dozen years have been an epic disappointment.  

The time has come for a comprehensive house cleaning. Treliving can stay, in theory, but he will need to prove himself with new leadership. The next coach (yet to be named) and executive team must have a proven track record of experience winning at a big-league level. Getting a group of young players over the hump is an arduous job that not only requires industry knowledge but also a specialty skill set that can only be acquired by contending with the day-to-day challenges of multiple seasons. There is a proper time and place for baptism by fire. The most valuable franchise in hockey is not an acceptable landing spot for those needing to learn on the fly.

We can now turn our attention to the players. There is no doubt that the core forwards are extremely talented. They have strong offensive power and can facilitate good outcomes. However, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner do not consistently produce in the postseason. Moreover, neither player demonstrates leadership attributes. William Nylander and John Tavares are proven playoff performers, but the latter’s age is beginning to show, and his contract has been a hindrance to resolving the defensive woes. 

It has never been clearer that this core cannot be kept together. With that being said, there is a proper way to separate them. A large portion of the fan-base wants to strip Tavares of the team captaincy, and/or get rid of him altogether. Doing so makes absolutely no sense. Tavares is a high character player and has been an excellent captain. The man only has a single year left on his premium contract and is guaranteed to re-sign for less than half his current salary, and he is still a quality third line centre heading into his mid-thirties. Yes, Matthews is the best player on the team, but the best player is not always the captain. Patrick Kane is case and point, as is Nathan McKinnon. What the Leafs need from their number one centre is someone who can score more than 50 goals every season for the next decade. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Tavares, 33, should be offered a three year, $4 million per year contract extension this summer. Nylander, who just inked a new eight-year deal, should be groomed to become captain when Tavares hopefully transitions to an off-ice role with the team around 2030. If there is anything we have learned about the Swedish star over these past three playoffs, brief as they have been, it is that he is quickly becoming the next Mats Sundin. 

That brings us to Marner. There is no doubt he is a likeable guy. He scores pretty goals, has a fun sense of humour and brings youthful energy to the club. However, he does not come through in the postseason and he does not exude the maturity that one would expect of a player entering his ninth pro season. Making matters worse, it is widely anticipated that he could demand a whopping $12 million in his upcoming contract negotiations.

It is time to have a talk with Marner, thank him for his service, make it clear he is not going to be re-signed and ask for a list of teams he would play for. Refusing to waive his no-trade-clause under these circumstances would be a disaster for the 27-year-old winger. This cap space can be utilised to sign a solid defenceman and a back-up netminder.

The defensive core is moving in the right direction but needs more work. Management should continue building around Morgan Reilly and look at solid options for bulking up further, including Adam Larsson, David Savard, Andrew Peek, Nick Sealer and Shawn Walker. Joseph Woll is, without a shadow of a doubt, the long-term goaltending solution. The focus should be on honing his abilities in 2024-25 in preparation for a three-to-five-year contract next summer. The time has also come to part with unrestricted free agent Ilya Samsonov. He is not a bad goalie, but there are simply better back-up options to pursue, including Jake Allen, Kaapo Kahkonen and James Reimer. 

So, where do we go from here? Bring in experienced management and a veteran coaching staff that knows how to win. Double down on the leadership of Tavares, Nylander and Reilly, allowing their maturity to mentor the younger men. Free up cap space and fill in the gaps on defence and in net. Most of all, be patient… because before long, the tough old veterans of the league will retire, and the playing field will even out. 

The good news? Once it happens, these Toronto Maple Leafs will have a realistic opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. The bad news? Our beloved game will never be the same. 

NOTE: The Maple Leafs Management Team is scheduled to hold a press conference today. This briefing will give a sense of direction regarding where the team is headed, beyond the fact that Keefe will be replaced as head coach. 

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