Nightmare Scenario For The Leafs

TORONTO (May 8) — Truth be known, there was only one circumstance the Toronto Maple Leafs wished to avoid after winning their first playoff round in nearly two decades: getting drubbed in the second round and forcing management to trade one of Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner before July 1 of this year. At the moment, with the Maple Leafs in a 3–0 series hole against the Florida Panthers and their most–important players again firing blanks, there appears to be no other option. Adding to the conundrum is the choice of individual to execute such a dramatic change. Is Kyle Dubas — denied a contract extension by ownership prior to this season — that person? Or, after seven attempts to make legitimate noise in the Stanley Cup tournament, will it be someone else?

Bottom line is, there’s no way the Leafs can afford to have Matthews and Marner take full control of their hockey futures. Not after what appears to be another early flame–out by the $22.5–million duo. Nor, quite frankly, does either player deserve such a privilege in Toronto. That would change, of course, if the Leafs became the fifth team in 198 attempts to erase a 3–0 deficit in a best–of–seven playoff and advance to the next round. Otherwise, Toronto management, led by whomever, cannot cede contract jurisdiction to players that have routinely come up small for the club when it matters. That control kicks in just 53 days from now with no–movement clauses for the beleaguered M&M boys. Once it occurs, the Maple Leafs can no longer trade Matthews (with one year remaining on his current pact) or Marner (with two years left). Between today and July 1, Matthews can attempt to negotiate a long–term extension with the club. If not dealt, however, before Canada Day, No. 34 will be eligible to walk, with no return, after next season as an unrestricted free agent. Staying or leaving becomes 100 percent his call.

You watched the game from Florida on Sunday. You noticed the similarity between that vacant performance and so many playoff nights in the past seven years. Only, this was rock bottom. At least, we think it was. To prevent the Leafs from falling into a 3–0 gorge for the first time since 1979, Matthews and Marner had to come up with the Stanley Cup performance of their lives. Instead, they were horrible. And, horribly indifferent. As we sit here today, with the Leafs on the cusp of another playoff disaster; in a year when the Stanley Cup chase appears to be wide open, would you honor Matthews with complete control of his future? Would you lock him up for the next eight years at the most–lucrative salary ever awarded a hockey player? An athlete who clearly cannot (or hasn’t the desire to) elevate performance in the clutch… as this corner has been telling you for the better part of three years.

Or, would you say to yourself — finally and conclusively — enough is enough? And, ensure that Matthews is playing elsewhere in the National Hockey League before July 1, when he can begin holding a gun to your head?

Therein lies the difference between this playoff dud and those in the past. There were no contract deadlines after the consecutive defeats against Boston. After the embarrassment of losing a qualifying round to the nondescript Columbus Blue Jackets. Even after spitting up that 3–1 series lead against the wholly inferior Montreal Canadiens.

Only now does a significant deadline loom for the axiomatic face of the franchise: the 60–goal, Hart Trophy guy that often brings his best during the regular season. And, just as often packs it away as soon as the chips emerge. If the Leafs are swept by Florida; even taken down in five games, there can be no more chances. No more hollow cries of “we’ll get this done” from Brendan Shanahan. Or, the oft–nauseating “we believe in our group” from Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe. In fact, there can be no credible pretext to moving forward with Matthews beyond this season. Not if the Leafs are serious about accomplishing more than looking pretty between October and April. It’s time to cut bait with the 2016 No. 1 draft choice and move in an alternate direction. Just as happened with the Brian Burke pipedream of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf that also couldn’t get anything done when it mattered.

Some may wonder why I’m singling out Matthews when the other members of the not–so–vaunted Core 4 are mailing in this series. I’ve answered the question. This is Auston’s team. Just as the late–70’s Leafs were Darryl Sittler’s team; as the early 90’s belonged to Doug Gilmour; the start of the millennium to Mats Sundin… and the salary cap, non–playoff years to Kessel and Phaneuf (the lone exception being 2013, when that club finally qualified and coughed up the 4–1, third–period lead in Game 7 at Boston). Marner is the most–gifted of the current Leafs; William Nylander, the most slick; John Tavares, the most respected. But, Auston Matthews is the Leaf with the biggest veins. If he stays, and given his demonstrated inability (and/or unwillingness) to rise to the playoff occasion, how could anything about the club become different? This is SEVEN CONSECUTIVE TRIES with the same nucleus at a deep playoff run. All failed, unless you take solace in the Leafs scraping past Tampa this spring while being outplayed during the bulk of the six–game series. Unless you somehow overlook the astounding fact that Toronto has just one regulation–time victory in nine matches this playoff year. And, a 1–4 record on home ice.

How much more evidence does a hockey observer need? Let alone a dyed–in–the–wool Leafs supporter.

The big questions about who would be entrusted with trading Matthews — and from which rival club could the Leafs obtain the best return — aren’t for me to answer. That’s for the tall thinkers and multi–millionaires at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment who have sat far–too comfortably in the background during this aborted playoff era. Either drinking the Shanahan Kool Aid or choosing to not interfere with the hockey department (though it was at the ownership level that Shanahan’s bid to re–sign Dubas, last summer, was denied). If Sunday night’s tipping point; that agonizingly feeble effort in the face of near elimination, didn’t grab the attention of a person of influence at Rogers and Bell, or of 25% shareholder Larry Tanenbaum, then we can fully expect Groundhog Day: Dubas to ink a long–term extension… and for the incumbent GM to stubbornly retain his perennial Stanley Cup flops.

Otherwise, there is no justification to provide Matthews full control of his future, starting July 1.

Not unless he and the other malingerers suddenly pull a Leon Draisaitl and prove they have some guts. By roaring back against the Cinderella team of the 2023 Stanley Cup tournament. A scenario that seems most unlikely.


By all accounts, a much–different Leafs team refused to yield 30 years ago this week, despite losing Games 2 and 3 in their second–round playoff series with the St. Louis Blues. These images are from my scrapbook of the 1993 playoffs. Defenseman Jeff Brown scored in overtime at Maple Leaf Gardens to square the round, 1–1, heading to the old St. Louis Arena. Another blueliner, Garth Butcher, then slayed the Leafs (above) in Game 3 with the decisive tally at 9:24 of the third period — the Blues prevailing, 4–3 (Brendan Shanahan scored twice for the winners). In a matinee affair on May 9, 1993, the stubborn visitors fought back to even with a 4–1 triumph in Game 4 (below). Dave Andreychuk’s powerplay goal late in the second period broke a 1–1 tie. Todd Gill (at 12:55 of the third) and Andreychuk (into an empty net for Toronto at 19:16) made the Norris Division final a best–of–three affair.


30 comments on “Nightmare Scenario For The Leafs

  1. Always enjoy your missives Mr Berger and remember your salad days with the FAN well. Bottom line here, the signing of Tavares was and always will be a complete mystery. A solution in search of a problem. Leafs had one of the best young 1-2 C tandem in league with Matthews and Kadri. Signing of JT totally changed the trajectory of the rebuild and not for the better. JT even then, was a good, not great, player. Weak defensively. His salary then drove up the price for WN, MM and AM. Boom, no cap room for another top 4 D and a top 6 F. Game over. The rest is history. Just sad. (p.s. this is not Monday morning quarterbacking. I said the same thing when they signed JT. My quote at the time: “I don’t get it”.)

  2. Toronto can win the next four games. Unlikely but possible.

    Toronto’s lack of bona-fide puck-moving defensemen hurts the forwards who should be scoring goals.

    It’s time to dismantle the team and start with defense first. I’m hoping for a good game tonight.

  3. I have always maintained Matthews is the one to trade because I (used to) believe that Marner was better and more important. Now??? How to you pick which one of the core to trade based on what they can’t deliver? They ALL come up small in the biggest moments.
    Perhaps there just isn’t enough room on one team for 4 outsized egos. Hopefully trading Mathews or someone will allow whoever remains to step up….I don’t know that I believe it though.
    I wonder how much coaching has to do with their performance. When Keefe backed off his criticism early in the season, I wondered who is really in charge. The core has deserved plenty of public criticism to go along with the heaps of praise they receive, but they have never received it from their coach. You can’t help people be leaders by JUST smothering them with praise.
    I wasn’t sure firing Dubas was necessary but I’ve come around. He deserves credit for building the behind-the-scenes organization but his PRIMARY responsibility was to build a potentially winning team on the ice that would remain competitive for some time. On THAT role he has failed, and it wasn’t a failure by circumstance but of vision/execution and stubbornness. Tavares signing – unnecessary, and it hamstrung their cap by upping what MMN would expect in contracts, constant trading of first round pics, including trading down for quantity over quality – an ongoing issue since Floyd Smith resulting in a dearth of NHL ready or capable prospects, and drafting for his version of hockey smarts regardless of the physicality/size of the player created a pool of little fish too small for the big tank.
    It’s time to move on from the Dubas-Keefe package. Let him “walk into” a position with Pittsburgh if he truly is their preference. I doubt it will happen, though I think Shanahan may force him to fire Keefe. The organization is paralyzed by the possibility the whoever leaves might excel in their new surroundings.
    And Sid Seixeiro NAILED it. I wish he had taken over for Bob in the afternoon. I might have had a reason to listen.

  4. The first problem is the management. They must go first. The second problem is the coaching staff. they must go second. Then you start changing the players. The first player needs to be traded is the captain. Not a leader, terrible defensively. Next is Morgan Rielly. Having a decent playoff but not a number one dman. Move those two guys and there we be cap space to work with. Bring in new management and coaches, not these kids they have in management and on the coaching staff and maybe the whole team plays better.

    1. John Tavares cannot be traded, sent down, bought out, etc. He has a FULL no-movement clause. Exactly the situation Matthews and Marner will enter on July 1. Control goes from team to player. Very dangerous territory for the underachieving Leafs.

  5. While I’m not sure Leafs have given themselves enough runway to execute a fair trade for Matthews by July 1st- I agree that at least on the outside he appears like a heartless player. However- in all honesty- watching the Leafs try to get the puck out of their own zone and also bring the puck into the opposing zone during these playoffs is agonizing. You win and lose as a team- and Matthews is a player the opposing team can concentrate on even more- if say the Panthers ( or Lightning) shut down home zone exits by Leafs and their entry into Panther blue line area. However I do agree that in critical areas like the Panthers zone, players like Matthews do not use the body to dislodge the puck. However – Matthews has one of the best takeaway stats in the league. The time to unload Matthews( to maximize returns)was at the end of last season or somewhere this current season. Leafs will take the path of least resistance and terminate Keefe and Leafs brass and media owner partners( Bobcat called them at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics- the unholy alliance) will retain Dubas and Shanahan- the former given a 2 year extension only. Leafs will not trade Matthews unless a team likely in the West- thinks they can “ fix him” and offer the Leafs pots of gold( read excellent current players, prospects and draft choices).

    1. If opposing teams can “concentrate” more on Matthews, why did he score 60 goals and twice win the Rocket Richard Trophy? And, spare me “but, the playoffs are different.” The truly great ones get better when the heat intensifies. The time to trade Matthews is before he can dictate his future to the Leafs. Which starts July 1.

  6. I was saying the same thing last year as they showed nothing then, and neither have the captain or softy Nylander. The problem facing them though is that, unless something is already in the system, which I do not believe there is, for replacement, how do you replace what you may either lose for nothing or have to make an absolute blockbuster for? Most great players are locked up and the Leafs would need to manage that into the cap, money in money out. This will set them back years for redevelopment as the other players get older and slower, or more expensive. Damning time for sure.

  7. Woll has been confirmed as starting on Wednesday night. Here’s another opportunity for an upstart Leaf to show some guts.

    A 2-0 win with an opening goal from the core would be the kind of stuff that championship teams are made of. I’m not holding out any kind of hope, but it sure would be nice.

    I pray that if the Leafs go down, the blind and deaf don’t try and blame the (self-inflicted) Samsonov injury as a primary point of concern. On the flipside, Vegas (an actual championship caliber team) dominated last night in the wake of an injured netminder.

  8. The time to trade Matthews was last year, when it became obvious this core would never get it done. Trading him now won’t yield as much in return, because with one year before free agency he’s almost a rental at this point.

  9. Want to start a conversation? Call the Hawks and ask if there is any Toronto assets they would have interested in acquiring for the 1st overall draft pick in 2023. Of course the draft is before July 1st so Toronto would have some core assets available to trade.

        1. What team would give up three years of entry level salary with Connor Bedard for players that will cost, within two years, more than $25 million? C’mon. Stay real.

  10. Absolutely agree. Start from the top. MLSE should finally show the fans they care. Shanahan, Dubas, Keefe… clean house ASAP. Have a Plan B in place with a new president and GM. Trade Matthews and Marner, unfortunately we’re stuck with Tavares. Start over. Enough is enough, away with the entitled.

    1. Nick: You don’t trade Matthews AND Marner. The Leafs still have to provide ticket buyers some hope and entertainment. Marner’s no-move clause kicks in with two years left on his contract. Matthews has just one year left and can dictate his immediate future if not dealt before July 1. He’s the guy I start with.

  11. I hate to say it, but we all knew this was going to happen when they started the season with Samsonov and Murray in net.

    I don’t think Dubas is the issue. I think this is 100% coaching. The inmates are running the asylum with their overly complex passing plays, and when they don’t work, they don’t know what to do.

    They’ve had D men in and out over the last 4 years and NOTHING has changed… that’s coaching.

    I DO think the core feels like they’ve gotten away with whatever and management won’t do anything. I think they need to move Nylander and get some good core parts back, including a goalie.

    1. Fans,

      I’m 51. I am too old to start over. Howard you perfectly detailed the somewhat successful leadership groups post 1967 Cup Winning Team. Who really has the stomach to rebuild again. We were lost in the desert for a decade without reaching the playoffs. Rebuilding doesn’t always equal success. You need generational talents that are procured by luck (Crosby and Matthews were #1 picks) Bedard will be one too. I’m not optimistic or interested in a rebuild. This better be a retool with a new Coach and without Marner who is too afraid when it counts. Wait and see – Matthews is probably injured. Tavares is too slow. Major surgery but not a tear it to the ground rebuild. Who would you trust to undertake this type of a life saving procedure?

      1. Don’t make excuses. If Matthews is “injured”, he’s been hurt in the playoffs for seven consecutive years. There’s no way he deserves to assume contract control from the team. Trade him before July 1 or it’ll be more of the same.

  12. Shanahan will be telling everyone when they are eliminated, we believe in the core and I believe in Kyle. I’m just finishing Kyle’s 5 year extension which should be completed next week. The is the problem with this club. They can’t see what everyone else can see. They will never progress with this expensive core. History is telling. How Shanahan gets away with this is remarkable.

  13. Have to finally agree with you, both Matthews & Marner need to be traded for players & picks.(ASAP). Keefe has also been badly outcoached & still insists on playing Holl who again costs them a goal because he couldn’t count how many opposing players were in front of him. He was lost out there, as were all the Leafs. When your fourth-line center & winger are the only ones that show up for a must-win game you have a much, much bigger problem than you think. Keefe has to go as well & yes Dubas & Shanhan the ten-year plan has run out of time. Recoup picks & start over. They have again shown they have no interest in showing up when it counts. They fold like a lawn chair which is what they are longing for anyways. They disappear to some island vacation 3000 miles from hockey & enjoy the money that they have never earned in the playoffs. This core just isn’t good enough Matthews, Marner, and Tavares can not get it done no matter who you put around them. Everyone must finally see it is the core that is rotten. Not sure who would want them now, they certainly won’t get anywhere near 10 million anymore.

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