There’s Only One Player To Trade

TORONTO (May 16) — This is going in capital letters so Leafs Nation can save it and possibly throw it back at me. Even if that won’t happen, because… THE MAPLE LEAFS WILL NEVER PLAY FOR, LET ALONE WIN, THE STANLEY CUP WITH AUSTON MATTHEWS AS THEIR LINCHPIN. It matters not who owns the team; who presides over the team; who manages or coaches the team. Matthews scores lots of pretty goals in the regular season but does not possess the subliminal drive and determination to elevate performance when it matters. And, we’re not talking small sample size here. This has been unwaveringly persistent over the span of seven years. Were it merely a fluke, we’d have a different result by now. Instead, the springtime is Groundhog Day for No. 34.

This stance is primarily unpopular for two reasons: a) the fans are in love with Matthews for his regular–season exploits and his garnering of the Hart Trophy last season. And, b) the media is spellbound because virtually all current reporters, columnists and television pundits are also fans and cheerleaders. It is mind boggling how a veteran scribe can write, in Canada’s largest newspaper, there is absolutely no decision to be made on Matthews. He needs to be locked up to the longest extension possible at the earliest available opportunity. And, as one of the sport’s few truly earth–titling centres and its most gifted goal–scorer when at his peak, Matthews holds the key to the Leafs’ window of contention. Any credible discussion about shaking up the team’s core — a path the front office must aggressively explore this off-season — doesn’t include even an iota of consideration when it comes to No. 34. You’ll notice the word “playoffs” was conveniently excluded in both proclamations by double–dipper Chris Johnston, who has never written, or uttered on Leafs–owned TSN, a truly critical word about the club and its supposedly irreplaceable component. Neither is Chris alone. Not a single voice in any local newspaper, or on either of the Leafs–controlled all–sports networks, would even dream of minimizing Auston the Great. Possibly because Matthews looks after that, himself, every year in the Stanley Cup tournament. Like clockwork. All I know is the Leafs have rarely, if ever, had a superstar forward that fades so conspicuously when the chips are on the table.

So, there is no hesitation, from this corner, in offering the ALL CAPITALS pronouncement, above.

Compounding the issue, beyond measure, is that Matthews effectively becomes general manager of the Leafs on July 1. The club not only overpaid him in his first professional contract ($11.6 million salary) but tossed in the keys to the empire with a no–movement clause in the last season of a five–year pact. Once Canada Day arrives, Auston has the GM–in–name (be it Kyle Dubas or someone else) on puppet strings. He decides whether to sign an extension with the team. He dictates term and compensation. Or, he walks for no return a year from now.

No functional hockey team surrenders full control to an athlete devoid of a playoff résumé. The Maple Leafs, half–a–decade ago, gambled that Matthews would lead a string of Stanley Cup challenges. Instead, No. 34 has only once come to within 11 victories of a title (this spring). So, the Leafs have two choices: trade Matthews before July 1… or plan to snivel in his wake. Why any team would offer a perennial playoff flop $14 million a season over the bulk of a decade — or possibly cede to his demand of a shorter “bridge” contract with more movement restriction — boggles the mind. Here in the Big Smoke, however, it’s all about numbers between October and April. This market has no connection to a team that survives late into the spring. Management comports itself accordingly.

Equally confounding to the concept the Maple Leafs must retain Matthews is the notion of trading Mitch Marner.

In more than half–a–century watching the Blue and White, only Borje Salming and Doug Gilmour approached Marner in skill and playmaking acumen. Mitchell’s Stanley Cup numbers are also marginal, primarily because the vaunted pivot on the club’s No. 1 forward unit can’t put the puck in the ocean. Tying your can to Auston Matthews in the spring is unhealthy for any line–mate, particularly one given to feeding the puck. Salming had Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald. Gilmour had Dave Andreychuk and Wendel Clark. All of whom scored monster goals in the Stanley Cup tournament. Does anyone honestly believe Marner would struggle for points with such noted playoff marksmen as Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Brad Marchand or ageless Joe Pavelski (24 goals and counting in the past three playoff years)? Unloading Marner in favor of Matthews would be the biggest Leafs mistake since trading McDonald to the Colorado Rockies (coached by Donald S. Cherry) in December 1979 — a move that triggered the worst decade in franchise history.

Marner shows that he has a pulse. He looks and sounds pissed off when the team fails.

Surround him with a different playoff dynamic and see what happens.

You can put that in CAPITAL LETTERS as well.


16 comments on “There’s Only One Player To Trade

  1. Absolutely insane to even consider trading Marner. Players who score 100 points and get Selke award nominations are extremely rare. He plays point on the PK, kills penalties and is hands down the most skilled player on the team… he grew up in the GTA as a Leaf fan. Matthews is a Brett Hull/Ovechkin type. Pure shooter and great player but not nearly as versatile or well rounded. After 54 years of being a fan if Marner gets moved I think I will give up lol.

  2. ABSOLUTELY RIGHT HE IS NOT A CROSBY, McDAVID OR YZERMAN TO LEAD A TEAM. He has never won anything so does not know what it takes. Nylander has won with Marlies. Also the person who said KEEFE must be replaced for the reasons he mentioned is CORRECT. LEAFS must trade for tough, mobile defenseman that know how to win NOW

  3. Hey Howard,,

    Red Wings fan here (or as you used to affectionally call us, “DEADWINGS FANS”). I so enjoyed listening to you on The FAN-590 late nights in the 90’s. The Leaf team today reminds me of our 1993 Wings team: all offense, average defense and goaltending. It took Scotty Bowman to change that around. Defense wins Cups! Rielly is the current heart of the Leafs and should be the captain. He played his heart out in the playoffs. Leafs must trade at least one of the Core-4 for a shut down defenseman. If that can be done by trading Matthews, go for it. P.S. Now Leafs fans know how Wings fans felt in 1993.

  4. I reluctantly agree: wanted Matthews to turn into a playoff hero, but think he does not have the heart and inner drive that great performers need. Think Crosby, Tkachuk, Sundin, Clark, etc. The question is: What can we get for him before July 1?

    1. The Leafs put themselves in a position of weakness, with no bargaining power. July 1 is an albatross. What you get with a trade before that day is lots of cap relief and the chance to change the culture of an indisputable playoff loser. No chance any club will part with significant assets for one year of Matthews and a no-move clause.

      1. Do you mean that a potential trade partner, if before July 1, would trade for Matthews only if they can break open his contract ? Which Matthews would have to approve anyway ?

  5. Can’t believe I’m typing this in block letters. I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH HOWARD BERGER.

    Reality is Matthews is great but he is not a guy who has shown he makes the difference in the playoffs. I also don’t believe trading the best playmaker is the right move. Sure there were times Marner looked bad, he made a ton of minor hockey mistakes in his own zone and looked too cocky, but I’m not sure Matthews hits 40+ without Mitch always finding ways to get him the puck. AM was shutdown because FLA knew to just have a guy watch him off the boards all the time. He doesn’t create plays he just finishes them.

    Personally I’d rather see the Leafs move Matthews and pick up 2-3 pieces. It’s clear like Willie he lacks heart, but I’m not sure Willie isn’t AMs match in goals if playing with Marner.

    Matthews(with an agreed to extension) to Washington for Wilson, van Riemsdyk, a 1st and Dylan Strome.

  6. My Conference Finals Picks in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    Hurricanes over Panthers in 6.

    Golden Knights over Stars in 7.

  7. Howard:

    If you were the Leafs GM, what would you reasonably expect to get in return for AM?

    The other move I think the Leafs need to make is to get a new coach. Keefe was outcoached in both series and the Leafs were probably fortunate to beat Tampa. It’s down to the coach to make sure his team starts on time. It’s down to the coach to make sure he’s got his lines right. I don’t think Keefe has done either of those things.

  8. Hi Howard,

    I agree wholeheartedly about your Matthews assessment. But I thought Marner often looked like a chicken with the head cut off in his own zone – especially when Florida was blitzing them. And there are other things – like after that regular season game when Keefe publicly criticized his charges for lackadaisical effort, then apologized (the next day?). What was going on there – and was that snowflake sensitivity only Matthews’ ?

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