On April 29, 2023, the Toronto Maple Leafs advanced to the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 19 years.
On May 13, 2023 - nearly two weeks later - the same team was eliminated following a five game series against the Florida Panthers.
Nobody claims that winning the Stanley Cup is an easy undertaking – the Leafs six consecutive game seven losses (five in the first round and one in the 2020 qualifying round) are evidence of that.
With an entirely new generation witnessing their favorite team compete in more than two weeks of playoff hockey for the first time, it is unsurprising that the feeling of excitement was heightened in the city of Toronto. The second round loss has not only left a large portion of its fanbase, who were confident in their road to the cup final two weeks ago, with feelings of anger and heartache – it has also prompted many to question the future of the team and its ‘core four’ as a whole.
Who are the ‘Core Four’?
The Maple Leafs consist of a ‘core four’ – Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares. While the four players participated in all five games against the Panthers, they produced only three of the team's ten goals in the series. As a collective, the team failed to produce more than two goals each game.
The uproar was especially prevalent following the Leafs third consecutive loss against the Panthers, with Nylander being the only core four member to receive a point in game three. Given their extensive salaries and their limited point production in the second round, there are many who believe one of the four should be moved in the upcoming off-season. The burning question: who should it be?
Mitch Marner was drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015. His 2022-23 season featured 30 goals and 69 assists (99 points) in 80 games.
Over the last few seasons, Marner has been criticized for his lack of point production in high pressure moments – he recorded three goals and 11 assists in the 2022-23 playoffs. Against the Panthers, he contributed two assists and a game-winning goal that prevented a series sweep in game four. The right-winger signed a six-year, $65.3 million dollar contract in 2019 and will become an unrestricted free-agent in 2025. If the Maple Leafs are looking to move Marner, they would have to do so quickly as his no-trade clause goes into effect on July 1.
Auston Matthews was drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016. He is a decorated centreman highly praised for his point production in the regular season. The all-star received both the Hart and Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophies, as well as the Ted Lindsay award for his 60 goal season in 2021-22.
This year, Matthews recorded five goals and six assists in the playoffs, which includes his two assists against the Panthers. He signed a five-year, $58.1 million-dollar contract in February 2019 and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2024. He has a no-move clause effective July 1.
William Nylander was drafted eighth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014. In the 2022-23 regular season, the right-winger produced 40 goals and 47 assists (87 points) in 82 games. He produced four goals and six assists in the 2022-23 playoffs and his two goals and one assist against the Panthers make him the highest point producer of the core four in the second round. Plus, he scored the tying goal that pushed the Leafs to overtime in game five.
Courtesy of the Toronto Maple Leafs Twitter Page
John Tavares signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018 and became the captain of the team in 2019. In the 2022-23 regular season, he scored 36 goals and 44 assists (80 points) in 80 games. In the playoffs, he scored only four goals and earned four assists. With the one assist he accomplished against the Panthers, he has recorded the fewest points of any core four member in both the regular season and playoffs.
His contract is a seven-year, $77 million-dollar settlement with the Leafs. Unlike his core four teammates, the captain has a full no-trade clause in his contract. While speaking with the media on Monday, the centreman expressed his loyalty to the Maple Leafs and did not appear overly enthusiastic on the potential of waiving the condition.
At the Leafs media availability on Monday, all core four members exclaimed their loyalty to the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Kyle Dubas, the Leafs’ General Manager since 2017, discussed his open-minded approach to the upcoming off-season and his willingness to make important decisions for the benefit of the team's future.
Maple Leafs reporter David Alter tweeted on Monday: “Dubas on trading any of the core 4, says he’d be open to making any trade that improves the club: “If we make any trade we’ll make sure it’s thoroughly done. I think the team that we just played serves as a good template. It wouldn’t be hastily done.”” Therefore, if the team is looking for success in the future, change is most likely the only route forward. Whether that begins with moving a member of the core four - or a member of management - will be an ongoing debate in the upcoming weeks.