Maple Leafs Big Four May Be in Jeopardy After 2021-22 Season

After yet another embarrassing failure in the first round, there might not be a team with more pressure to succeed than the Toronto Maple Leafs. In this article, I discuss how it is likely the last chance that the core four of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander prove that they can win and which of them would be the first to be traded.

Just over a month away from the 2021-22 season and it seems clear that Kyle Dubas will run it back with the big guns. In an exit interview, Dubas echoed this statement by saying “For better or for worse, I believe in this group. I believe that they are going to get it done and that they are going to win.” For a team that has done nothing but let the organization and their fans down, Dubas has doubled down on the team he has crafted. However, just because he still thinks they will get the job done, does not mean he has not expressed his disappointment and frustration. In the All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs – Teaser Trailer there is a clip of Dubas saying “My patience is running thin” just after the Montreal Canadiens comeback win in round one. With Kyle Dubas’ job in jeopardy, he will have no choice but to make substantial moves if there is yet another Leafs collapse.

The definition for word core is “the central or most important part of something.” Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander all embody this as they are the best players on the team and the ones the organization relies on to produce the most. However, when it matters most, they simply have not gotten the job done. They get paid a considerable amount of money which forces them to get a lot of the blame when the Leafs can’t deliver. It is inevitable that one of them is on their way out of Toronto by the 2022 off-season if there is another postseason fallout.

So who should be the one to get traded?

Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews is the face of franchise, The Leafs have not had the privilege of having a superstar center since Mats Sundin left in 2008. Matthews is simply one of the best hockey players on the planet. He gets paid $11.6 Million and in my opinion, is worth every penny. Over the past three years Auston ranks 16th in goals above replacement, 1st in expected goals above replacement, and has a 55.84 expected goals for percentage. He is a sniper with a shot so deceptive he continues to make goaltenders look silly on a nightly basis. Since entering the league in 2016 he leads the NHL in even-strength goals with 152 in just 334 games. Just last season he scored at a 65 goal pace over an 82 game season. To put into perspective how hard it is to score 60 goals, only two players in the last 20 years have achieved the feat: Alex Ovechkin, and Steven Stamkos. Matthews has the potential to accomplish this, along with many other franchise records.

Based on his numbers alone it is enough evidence that trading Matthews would be a massive mistake. Not only is he one of the best players on the planet, but one of the greatest Leafs to ever play. Matthews has the personality and swagger to make the fans of Toronto idolize him. Being on the cover of the NHL games twice by the age of 23 proves he is one of the most marketable players and one of the faces of not only the Maple Leafs but the entire league as well.

Overall, Auston Matthews is not going anywhere. Toronto would do just about anything to make him stay, they would never trade him away as he enters his prime years.

John Tavares

When the Leafs won the Tavares sweepstakes in 2018, the fanbase began to plan the parade. One of the biggest NHL free agent signings ever and he was all ours. Coined the nickname Johnny Toronto, to say the fans were excited to see the hometown kid wearing the Maple Leaf is an understatement. Tavares had career numbers in his first season in Toronto scoring 88 points and 47 goals. The very next year Tavares was named captain, the first since Dion Phaneuf in the 2015-16 season. The next two seasons he had a combined 110 points in 119 games and over the past three seasons he ranks 25th in GAR and 41st in xGAR.

These numbers are incredibly impressive, but there is a downside to the Tavares signing. His average annual value is $11 Million (5th highest in NHL) and although it doesn’t seem too bad right now, the contract lasts for another four years until he is 34. The age curve suggests that he will steadily decline as he ages, making the cap hit quite steep in the later years. The contract would be the only logical reason as to trade him, if you can take $11 million off the books, you have a lot of options to work with.

In the end, I would not trade Tavares and I don’t particularly see why the Leafs would do so anyway. Why would they trade him away so shortly after naming him, captain? $11 million would be a lot of free cap space to acquire, but how many elite players like JT are available to replace him? He is a fan favourite in Toronto and although he isn’t untouchable like Matthews is, I just don’t see him being the guy to go either.

Mitch Marner

Mitch Marner is definitely the most controversial player on the Leafs. Half the fanbase wants him fired into the sun while the other half thinks he is irreplaceable. Whatever the truth may be, Marner’s time in Toronto is an interesting one, to say the least. Ever since his rookie year, he has looked like a truly special player. The way he sees the ice and finds his teammates is an incredible talent that very few others in the NHL possess. He was a fan favorite in Toronto his first three years but when his entry-level contract negotiation took a turn, so did the Maple Leafs fanbase.

Marner’s camp used all kinds of tools to get the most money for him and it worked as he now gets paid a hair under $11 million. This contract’s AAV is 7th among the entire NHL. Just like Tavares, it’s a pretty hefty number all things considered. However, the main difference is the age factor. Marner is only 24 and the contract carries all throughout his prime, so it’s very reasonable to say that he will be worth the deal in the end.

Mitch Marner finished 4th in total points in the 2021 season behind only McDavid, Draisaitl, and Marchand and on a three year scale, he ranks 17th in GAR and 53rd in xGAR. Not only is Marner an incredible offensive player, but he is also responsible defensively and a fantastic penalty killer. There is no evidence to suggest Marner isn’t an elite hockey player, but he is far from perfect. His stats in the playoffs have been disappointing, to say the least. For a guy as talented as Mitch, he has not scored a single goal in the playoffs for 18 games. This is absolutely inexcusable for someone being paid $11 million.

Does Mitch Marner get the boot considering his playoff woes? That’s a tough one. It’s hard to see a world in which you could win a trade where you send away a 24 year old phenom with the best yet to come. Although if something isn’t working, then maybe a big shake-up is best. His contract is taking up a lot of space, but just like Tavares, how many players can really fill the void if he is gone? It wouldn’t be easy to let go of Mitch Marner, but he is an option to move if need be.

William Nylander

William Nylander is another interesting case in which the fanbase is split. Nylander came onto the scene a year earlier than Matthews and Marner and gave fans something to finally be excited about. He was a constant 60 point player his first couple of years and looked like such a promising young player. Over his career as a Leaf, Nylander has accumulated 263 points in 358 games which is a solid 0.73 points per game. Nylander held out for his money until the very last minute paying him about $6.9 million. This left fans with a sour taste in their mouths, especially after he didn’t perform that well just after he signed it.

Nylander might be the least valuable player out of the core four, but the value on his contract is very good. His contract is looking like a bargain as it still has three more years on it at just $6.9 million. He also had the best playoff performance on the entire team in 2021, despite the loss of Tavares. If you’re talking about the collapse to the Habs, I would say Nylander is exempt from scrutiny on that one. However, a trade involving him could fetch a nice return and address some other needs the Leafs have.

At the end of the day regarding a William Nylander trade, it depends on what you value more: the contract being great or the player being a bit less skilled than the others. If Toronto fails once again in the playoffs, Willy Styles is one of the more logical options of the core four to head out.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I believe it comes down to two players of the Maple Leafs core four who could potentially be moved. Auston Matthews is simply too good to move, and John Tavares is another stud center and captain who is hard to replace. This leaves Mitch Marner and William Nylander on the chopping block. Marner can get you a bigger return and can clear more cap space but Nylander just isn’t as good so he is easier to replace.

My pick?

Mitch Marner. The reason that I would be Marner to be the first to go if all else fails is for a variety of reasons. Nylander’s contract is too good to move, Marner could get you a bigger return, and it shakes the team up more if you trade him.

Of course, none of this would matter if the Toronto Maple Leafs would just perform well in the playoffs. Only time will tell.

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