At the bitter end of the 2020-21 season, Brendan Shanahan said the Maple Leafs would spend the ensuing weeks determining the path forward.
What the Leafs front office would not do, however, was contemplate breaking up the Core Four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.
“We want to keep them here,” the Leafs president said.
Full disclosure: I’ve long advocated for the Leafs’ star-driven approach. But after another postseason loss, even I find myself starting to wonder whether it can actually work — whether it’s possible for a team to pay four players half the salary cap and win a Stanley Cup.
My growing uncertainty stems not only from the Leafs’ failure in the playoffs but, maybe just as crucially, a flat-cap environment that didn’t exist when Tavares, Nylander, Matthews and Marner signed their current deals.
In light of how the pandemic has fundamentally changed NHL economics, it’s striking the Leafs won’t even consider a change in course.
It’s a decision that merits scrutiny. And a deeper look at the challenges this path has and will continue to present.
The Leafs are betting on their Core Four to deliver them a Stanley Cup one day. (Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)Core questionsThe Leafs have had the same core in place for three of their five straight postseason defeats. Nylander, Matthews and Marner have been together for all five, but Tavares joined for only the last three after signing a seven-year, $77 million deal in the summer of 2018.
The Leafs’ books have been structured like this — with four players eating about 50 percent of the salary cap — for only two playoffs. After all, it was only last season that Matthews and Marner’s weighty second contracts kicked in.
The experiment is technically still in an early stage — especially considering Tavares missed the majority of this year’s playoffs due to injury — even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that way.
What’s already glaring is how narrow the margins are for success when four players consume so much of the available resources (roughly $40.5 million of the $81.5 million cap in each of the past two seasons).
A key injury or two — to Tavares and Jake Muzzin (in back-to-back playoffs) — along with little finish from the stars and the Leafs sunk both times to inferior opponents.
It’s also fair to say the Leafs’ approach to the cap is extreme. No recent champion has been quite as aggressive when it came to paying its top players.
The Tampa Bay Lightning dedicated about 40 percent of last season’s cap to its top four of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos (who played one game), Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. That number was about 34 percent for the St. Louis Blues in 2019 and 40 percent for the Washington Capitals in 2018.
Those champions all had more dollars to address the talent surrounding their top players. And helpful contributions from young players.
At the Leafs’ season-ending media availability earlier this month, GM Kyle Dubas pointed to the Pittsburgh Penguins as a team that reached the top of the mountain constructed somewhat like the Leafs. The Penguins won back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 with a lot of payroll dedicated to four players.
Which raises a question: If they could do it, why can’t the Leafs?
For one thing, Pittsburgh’s top four players weren’t eating quite as much of the cap. In the 2015-16 season, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel accounted for about 45 percent of the $71.4 million cap.
A season later, it was 44 percent of the $73 million ceiling.
It was extreme allocation but less so than the Leafs.
Speaking recently to The Athletic, Jim Rutherford said he never considered trading a highly paid core player to create space after he took over as Penguins GM in 2014.
The main reason? That core — minus Kessel but including Marc-Andre Fleury — had won a title in the not-so-distant past (2009).
“I believed in the players,” Rutherford said.
He witnessed firsthand, in their habits and approach, how desperate Malkin and Crosby were to win again.
The salary cap eventually did exact a penalty, too: The Penguins had to move on from Fleury for financial reasons after winning in 2017.
Pittsburgh’s two-peat was also distinct from what the Leafs have built in that they received considerable contributions from youngsters making almost nothing.
In 2017, for instance, Jake Guentzel (21 points), Brian Dumoulin (22 minutes per game) and Matt Murray (.937 save percentage) were all playing on cheap entry-level contracts.
In 2020 and 2021, the Leafs had no impactful young contributors like that.
Rutherford explains that the real key to Pittsburgh’s success was the goaltending they received from Murray and Fleury.
The Leafs, meanwhile, have been let down in net repeatedly and may seek to strengthen that position this offseason.
Rutherford, who resigned from the Penguins in January, politely declined to comment on the Leafs doubling down on their stars this offseason.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said, before adding, “I have a lot of respect for Kyle.”
Rutherford does receive phone calls occasionally from his now former peers seeking wisdom on how to get over the hump. (He didn’t say if Dubas was among them.)
His advice likely sounds a lot like this: “You can’t break a championship down to one or two things. Because when you go on a playoff run, regardless of how good you are, you have to get all the breaks and things have to line up for you.”
Malkin and Crosby each had 46 points in 48 games over those two playoffs to lead the entire NHL. Kessel posted 45 points in 49 games himself, mostly from the third line.
Letang played 29 minutes per game in 2016. Then the Penguins won without him, due to injury, in 2017.
The Leafs believe their stars will eventually deliver, too. And there’s evidence their young players are continuing to evolve and improve.
Nylander just put together his most complete postseason in the NHL. Over the past two regular seasons, he’s amassed 48 goals — a top-20 mark leaguewide — and 101 points — a top-40 mark.
More than the numbers, Nylander made strides in engagement and defensive intensity, particularly in the postseason. You could sense the ownership he felt over the Leafs’ fate.
The arrow (as our man Dom Luszczyszyn’s modelling above suggests) is pointing in a steady direction for Nylander, who turned 25 in May.
Matthews, meanwhile, is only 23 and has Crosby-like two-way play in his arsenal. A run of 50-goal seasons — and more Rocket Richard Trophies — feels likelier than not. He likely has a Hart Trophy in his future after nabbing his first finalist nod earlier this month.
We probably haven’t glimpsed his best just yet.
Matthews’ playoff performance against Montreal lacked finish, with only one goal scored. And his individual scoring chance and high-danger shot attempt rates both dipped from the regular season, as the quality and quantity of prime looks at the net diminished.
There’s another level he can still reach at playoff time — though he’s probably been a touch unlucky, too.
Matthews' yearly shooting percentage
2020-2118.52.9As for Marner, he made an apparent leap alongside Matthews during the regular season, surging to fourth in the NHL scoring race.
Only perennial MVP candidates Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Nathan MacKinnon have collected more even-strength points over the past three seasons.
But it’s undeniable Marner has lacked his usual bounce the last two postseasons. He has only three 5-on-5 assists in his last 19 playoff games — all during a shaky series against the Canadiens last month.
Was his skittish play the result of pressure — of trying too hard to deliver for his hometown or justify his controversial contract? Was he worn down from playing the most minutes of any NHL forward during the regular season? Has he not adjusted to the tighter terrain of playoff hockey?
What sticks out looking back on some of Marner’s play during the 2018 playoffs, when he greatly impressed against the Boston Bruins as a 20-year-old, was how free he appeared and how simple he made the game.
Marner’s most frequent linemates that spring were veterans Tomas Plekanec and Patrick Marleau. Marner set up two Marleau goals in a Game 3 win (see above) and ended up with nine points in seven games while facing Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand a fair bit.
The Leafs are betting that player resurfaces in the playoffs.
As for Tavares: Where does the captain go from here? He’ll turn 31 in September.
Can the Leafs’ plan really work if Tavares is merely a very good — not great — player who has one of the largest cap hits ($11 million) in the league? If his production slips from the 31-goal, 76-point pace of the last two seasons to 20 to 25 goals and 60 to 65 points next year, with less impact in the playoffs?
And how much will Tavares’ decline matter if Matthews, Marner and Nylander deliver as expected? Even a lesser version of Tavares probably betters most second-line centres across the league but that price tag complicates things.
The solution likely lies in Tavares punishing teams who have no choice but to divert secondary defensive resources his way — particularly in the playoffs.
So far in his Leafs career, Tavares has mustered only four goals and eight points in 13 — more like 12, given his early exit in Game 1 against the Habs — postseason games.
In his younger days with the Islanders, Tavares scored 11 goals and added 11 assists in 24 playoff games. Without many threats lower in the lineup, the Leafs need something closer to that level of production in the playoffs.
Maybe the Leafs should make supercharging Tavares a priority, with Marner rejoining his line next season? (That would have the side effect of easing Marner’s quality of competition.)
Maybe they should go even a step further and structure their lineup as those Penguins did, with at least one star on three of their four lines?
Perhaps Matthews should go solo, a la Crosby, Marner should hook back up with Tavares, and Nylander, playing the Kessel role, should beat up on lesser competition from the third line — maybe even as a centre?
The Leafs had minimal threats from their third and fourth lines against Montreal or Columbus in the postseason. A multitiered star look might improve that dynamic.
But what the Leafs are really counting on here is their surplus of stars can overwhelm foes when it matters. If Matthews is stymied, for example, Tavares will power them through, and vice versa.
It just hasn’t happened in the playoffs.
Their top-heavy approach comes with inherent vulnerability. If the stars go cold or if one gets hurt, the roster often lacks the talent to make up the difference.
Again: narrow margins.
Nailing (almost) everything elseThis is where my increasing level of concern lies.
Not only has the NHL’s salary cap gone flat. Not only are the stars chewing up half of what’s available and getting about (or slightly more) than they’re worth. The Leafs could also be paying fair value next season (or even a little more) to Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie, Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall.
It’s why, among other reasons, they may have to let Zach Hyman walk in free agency, rather than bring him back at market rate. How many players in a cap system can earn precisely what they’re worth?
The Leafs’ value contracts are few and far between at the moment: Jack Campbell ($1.65 million), Justin Holl ($2 million), Morgan Rielly ($5 million), and the newly re-signed Jason Spezza ($750,000). Anyone else?
Maybe Rasmus Sandin or Nick Robertson if either can make the leap next season.
The Leafs were anticipating a rising cap — as much as 6 percent higher for the 2020-21 season (which would have pushed the Core Four’s hit down to under 47 percent). That’s extra depth lost because of circumstances beyond the organization’s control.
And yet, that’s also reason to, at the very least, contemplate a change, namely by thinking about trade possibilities.
Otherwise, the Leafs must masterfully scrounge for value in the free-agent bargain bin, a difficult feat they haven’t been able to pull off with enough success in recent years.
Leafs' 2020 offseason value bets
1 Wayne Simmonds$1,500,00038957%
2 Zach Bogosian$1,000,00045457%
3 Alexander Barabanov$925,00013150%
4 Mikko Lehtonen$925,0009349%
5 Jimmy Vesey$900,00030749%
6 Jason Spezza$700,000543054%
7 Joe Thornton$700,000442056%
8 Travis Boyd$700,00020850%Only Spezza and Zach Bogosian were true bargain hits last offseason. (The midseason acquisition and rebuilding of Alex Galchenyuk was also a win.)
That’s the reality of bargain-basement shopping, though. There aren’t a lot of deals to be had. You get what you pay for, generally.
For this to work, the Leafs need to unearth more gems, such as Carter Verhaeghe, a 2013 third-round pick of the Leafs who delivered 18 goals and 36 points in 43 games for Florida in the first season of a two-year contract with a $1 million cap hit.
Verhaeghe went unqualified by Tampa after the 2019-20 season.
Anthony Duclair, who went unsigned until December, produced 32 points in 43 games for Florida last season for roughly the same money ($1.7 million) as Wayne Simmonds, a player the Leafs rushed to sign in the opening hours of free agency.
He had only nine points in 38 games and just one in the playoffs.
Jason Spezza has been the Leafs’ most successful recent bargain buy. (Eric Bolte / USA Today)The Leafs can’t afford to miss on the margins. Rolling the dice more on youth with upside — unqualified players, for instance — as opposed to oldies like Simmonds and Joe Thornton feels like the right approach in the future.
The Leafs simply need more pop from lower in the lineup in the playoffs.
Zapping Frederik Andersen’s $5 million cap hit from the books this summer creates some space to improve (some, or even all, of it on a replacement in net), as does perhaps spreading around the money Hyman could get on his next deal (a roughly $5 million cap hit) on multiple forwards.
Will that be enough support for the stars?
You could argue that falling short at the draft during Shanahan’s term (starting in 2014) has hurt the supporting cast as much as anything. The Leafs deserve credit for nailing top-10 picks like Matthews, Marner and Nylander.
Losing first-round picks to land Muzzin, to trade Marleau and to acquire Nick Foligno stings in light of the organization’s lack of success beyond the opening round.
In fact, since 2014, the Leafs have plucked only three current NHL regulars from Rounds 2 through 7: Engvall (2014); Travis Dermott (2015); and Carl Grundstrom (2016). (Grundstrom was also used to acquire Muzzin from the Kings.)
There’s no Brayden Point-like home run (a Tampa third-round pick in 2014) in that group either. And real help from the prospect base doesn’t appear imminent.
Adam Brooks, a fourth-rounder in 2016, has a chance to become a fourth line regular next season. Robertson, a second-round pick in 2019, looks like a future NHLer of some kind.
That’s not enough to thrive when middle-class types like Hyman, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, among others, need to be replaced year after year. It necessitates a lot of discount buying in free agency — with low odds of success.
Rasmus Sandin was Kyle Dubas’ first draft pick as Leafs GM in 2018. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)A late first-rounder in 2018, Sandin looks like he’ll play a significant role in the coming years, so that’s something, especially if Rielly (a free agent next summer) isn’t re-signed. And the Leafs have hit outside the draft with players like Holl, Mikheyev, Trevor Moore and Nikita Zaitsev.
That needs to continue.
The Leafs have only three picks in the coming draft but selected 12 players in 2020 and nine two years earlier in Dubas’ first draft as GM. Will any be ready to impact the NHL squad before this experiment’s time runs out?
The Leafs also can’t afford to fall short at the trade deadline, as they did this past season in misfiring on Foligno and three basically unused depth pieces.
On their Cup runs, the Penguins were helped by midseason additions like Ron Hainsey and Carl Hagelin
Foligno was hurt when it mattered but that risk had to be baked into the acquisition of a 33-year-old who was also in decline offensively.
Trades for Muzzin and Campbell were more astute examples of Dubas trading. They were swings on undervalued players that filled a need.
Trading a starThe question the Leafs front office doesn’t appear inclined to ask is whether the team’s chances of winning are higher with the removal of one Core Four piece.
Matthews is obviously off the table. Tavares holds a no-movement clause on his pricey contract.
If the Leafs ever considered it, a trade would have to come down to Marner or Nylander.
Nylander may never have more value, coming off a solid playoff performance. And while he feels somewhat underrated across the league, there’s been interest in the past. Of the four big contracts, he might deliver the best bang for the buck, with a cap hit of $6.96 million for the next three seasons. It would be hard to do much better with those cap dollars.
Marner’s contract, however, accounts for almost $4 million dollars more on the cap at $10.9 million. He’s also among the top 30 players in the world.
Consider the possibility of moving Marner and the Leafs would have to ask themselves: How exactly are we getting better?
The answer, in theory, is by putting Marner’s cap dollars to work more effectively.
Could the Leafs trade Marner for a package centered around another gifted young forward who earns less and use the difference to boost their supporting cast?
How many players fit that bill? How many teams would be willing to take on Marner’s contract in a flat-cap environment?
Marner’s contract has another four seasons remaining, with a large chunk of the actual money paid already.
Matthew Tkachuk ($7 million cap hit) and Brock Boeser ($5.8 million) both have another year left on their contracts before another round of restricted free agency. Same with Pierre-Luc Dubois ($5 million), who had a rough go of it in Winnipeg after the trade from Columbus but is young and a centre.
Do any of the Carolina Hurricanes’ young stars meet the mark? Sebastian Aho is a star and has three years left on his contract at $8.4 million. Andrei Svechnikov is due his second NHL contract this summer.
There’s also Alex DeBrincat in Chicago, who has two years to go (at a $6.4 million cap hit) before his next deal. Same with Mathew Barzal ($7 million) on Long Island.
Maybe the most interesting prospect for such a trade is Jack Eichel, the unhappy Sabres captain.
Should the Leafs consider the merits of a Jack Eichel trade? (Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)Eichel has another five years remaining on his contract (one more than Marner) with a $10 million cap hit. He wouldn’t solve the money problem — though an extra $900,000 isn’t nothing either. Eichel and Matthews would give the Leafs the best 1-2 punch down the middle this side of McDavid and Draisaitl. With Eichel, the Leafs could slide Tavares to the wing, a la Steven Stamkos in Tampa— a move that’s probably due at some point in the future.
And it’s hard to imagine Buffalo doing much better in any Eichel deal than Marner.
Would it work for the Leafs? Not necessarily. Eichel isn’t the same all-around player. And who knows how he would fit inside the dressing room.
Yet, it’s the kind of conversation the Leafs should be having. To forge ahead without considering alternatives feels stubborn and speaks to an unconditional backing of the Core Four.
That said, it may also prove right.
Maybe all the Leafs’ playoff stumbles are the prelude of a championship story, as Shanahan and Dubas insist. Their vision for the roster may win out. They might also argue that if just one of those overtimes against the Habs (in Games 5 or 6) goes the other way, none of these conversations are even happening.
Maybe the kind of exploration we’re suggesting here leads nowhere — or toward nothing that makes the team meaningfully better? Maybe Eichel isn’t the answer and maybe none of those other young players are even available?
Maybe the tweak is letting players like Hyman and Andersen go? Maybe there’s a big trade to be had that doesn’t involve the Core Four but an institutional part like Rielly?
Maybe. But after such a tough end to their season, the Leafs should be exploring everything short of dealing Matthews.