The Maple Leafs have reversed it again. It backfired again. What now?

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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 said The Athletics 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 has become an all-too-familiar setting for the Leafs: an empty locker room after a painful playoff loss.

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

“Look, I don’t think there’s a problem with the core,” Nylander said. “I think we were there the whole series fighting – fighting hard. We’ve reached Game 7 OT. It’s like… feeling.’

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

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

However, the results are what they are. The Leafs haven’t gotten close at all. Running back this core – Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares and Morgan Rielly – hasn’t worked.

The Leafs ran it back after being embarrassed by an inferior Columbus Blue Jackets team in 2020. They ran it back after letting a 3-1 series lead melt away in 2021 against the Montreal Canadiens, another inferior opponent. it returned again after they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games a year later. And just when it looked like they might turn around last spring after dropping a five-game second-round series to the Florida Panthers, team president Brendan Shanahan fired then-general manager Kyle Dubas and pushed for it again — while Treliving sat in the chair of the general manager – that the core remained in place.

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

And yet the status quo clearly hasn’t solved anything either. On the contrary, the Leafs were dispatched again in the first round. Coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 doesn’t change the fact that coming back again had a counterproductive effect.

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

The issue of reversing it must concern the member of the core – the management department – ​​that is never mentioned: Shanahan.

No one is more responsible for the Leafs remaining at the top of the roster for so long with no playoff results than him. If anyone believed in the power of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares and Rielly to make this happen, it was him.

He believed again and again, despite the results.

After ten seasons as team president, Shanahan’s Leafs have won one playoff round, putting them in the same league as many of the league’s worst teams over the past decade.

It is truly breathtaking.

Playoff wins since the 2014-2015 season

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

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

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

Should he even get that chance after a decade of opportunities?

Shanahan’s thinking went something like this: If the Leafs traded away one of their great players every time they had a playoff disappointment, they might eventually run out of great players.

He believed that if there was 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 enough stars. Not when it mattered. And in a top-heavy system like the one the Leafs have run, the stars have to be stars when it matters. They didn’t get enough, not even this spring against Boston.

Shanahan liked to say that sticking to the plan was the hardest thing in Toronto.

However, it has proven to be naive to stick to the plan for so long. Time and time again it ignored the evidence, which stated emphatically that while the players in question were talented – demonstrably 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. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a sledgehammer to the core, but a scalpel. One piece cut out, another kind of piece inserted.

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

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

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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 a chance to pivot in either direction last season before movement clauses went into effect on the contracts of Marner, Nylander and Matthews.

The date before that was July 1.

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

Now a decision on 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 was given a full eight-year extension in January. Both players have full no-movement clauses.

This also applies to Tavares.

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

Rielly also has a movement clause on a contract that has six seasons remaining.

That leaves Marner, who is eligible to sign an extension on July 1.

He is also under a no-movement order, meaning he only goes somewhere else if he wants to. At best, that means a limited pool of teams the Leafs can move him to — and therefore a limited pool of assets they can fetch in return.

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

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

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Does the Maple Leafs future consist of 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, wanting to stay a Leaf, but last season he looked a lot like someone who wasn’t enjoying everything that comes with being a Leaf: the pressure, the control, the criticism, the relentless demand for more.

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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, especially early in the series when Nylander was absent.

He may be as ready for change as the Leafs are. Last summer he was prepared for this possibility.

Without expansion 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 get in return? It’s tempting to say “defender,” and that may not be the wrong answer if it’s the right defender. But it’s not like this franchise is filled with top players beyond Matthews and Nylander.

Can the front office, whoever is in charge, follow through and acquire a senior forward and a defenseman? And what kind of forward actually? If the idea is to try to change the “mix”, should it be an attacker with a different skill set than Marner? Someone who is harder and heavier to play against?

Or do the Leafs simply find the best possible player, period, who presumably makes less than Marner, and use the remaining cap space elsewhere?

Are draft picks part of the package? Should the Leafs make picks part of the package given their limited supply?

And again, which team has what the Leafs want, meets Marner’s wishes if he even wants to leave, and is willing to pay him?

If they are the two leads still running the show, can Shanahan and Treliving pull this off properly? 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, leading to 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 was raised at his introductory press conference: “You can throw a body under the asphalt and it might look good for the headlines, but will it make you any better? Ultimately, 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. Reversing it – again – is not an option.

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

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