How Likely Is The End Of The Core Four In Toronto?

Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the Dallas Stars with teammates Mitchell Marner #16, John Tavares #91, Morgan Rielly #44 and William Nylander #88 during the second period at Scotiabank Arena on February 7, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The dust is still settling on the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the blue and white were underdogs against the Boston Bruins and took the series to overtime of Game 7, the eight-year body of work has many in the NHL’s biggest market frustrated and ready for radical change.

The issue is that there’s only so much that can change now, that hasn’t been changed already. Since 2016/17, the Maple Leafs have changed general managers twice, most recently with Brad Treliving replacing Kyle Dubas last summer. They’ve changed coaches twice, with Sheldon Keefe being fired last week and a search for a replacement underway. Team President Brendan Shanahan has one year remaining on his contract, and for the time being, has the confidence of new MLSE CEO Keith Pelley. Most of the roster players have turned over, except for five players: Morgan Rielly, who has been with the team since 2013, and the “Core Four” of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares.

With that in mind, many eyes toward change are focused on the top players.

Can You Stay Patient?

Breaking up the Core Four – acquired in three parts by draft (Nylander in 2014, Marner in 2015, Matthews in 2016) and one part by free agency blockbuster (Tavares in 2018), has been a topic of contention for the past several seasons. You had fans and media who had a steadfast belief that the group of individuals could succeed, others who felt that being so loaded with star forwards was impossible to mix with winning, and a side contingent of people who weren’t particularly married to the specific players, but open to the thought process behind them.

That thought process is that star players are the most valuable asset a team can have due to their ability to break open games, the difficulty of acquiring them, and the positive cost-benefit that most top players in the NHL. The gap between the top salaries and the median or mean salaries in the NHL is much smaller than in most leagues, in large part due to teams’ fear of committing the maximum 20% to one single player – something only done once since the salary cap was imposed in 2005.

The Maple Leafs showed themselves willing to spend to acquire and keep their stars. Once Nylander, Marner, and Matthews’ entry-level deals were all behind them in 2019, they combined with Tavares to carry an annual average value of a little over $40 million, or half the salary cap ceiling. It was a heavy dent, but one the team felt comfortable with given the four’s individual upside, the prospect of a rising salary cap, and the hope that they could support them with a strong development pipeline of young and/or cheap secondary talent.

None of those things really happened, however. The COVID-19 pandemic and the way the league at large chose to deal with salary pay-outs froze the growth of the salary cap ceiling from 2020 to its first big jump this summer, the star players never really managed to catch an extended groove at the same time in the postseason, and the team seemingly ditched the pipeline to try to get quick-fixes to help them get over their playoff struggles, which saw them win just one playoff series between 2017 and 2024.

To make matters even tighter, Auston Matthews and William Nylander’s latest contracts add approximately $6 million more to the mix. While the cap ceiling is about to make its biggest single-season jump in six years ($4.2 million), that still puts Toronto about $2 million behind the looking glass.

The argument is two-pronged, with one more valid than the other. One sees a breakup of this group as a decision of accountability, a show that the group wasn’t able to get it done and that someone must show responsibility for it. In that respect, this year is perhaps the oddest year to pull it out, as the Leafs landed around both their pre-season and pre-playoff expectations this year.

The other prong focuses simply on trying to free up room to fix up other areas of weakness. Toronto has had success at limiting goals in the playoffs but lacks the personnel to move pucks and counter-attack at the pace that other elite teams do, particularly on the blue line. Goaltending is also a contentious topic, as Toronto’s lower-cost tandems in recent years have had extended stretches of good play, but a lack of consistency and rare cases of outright stealing games. Some could argue that the forward group could use more depth options that show comfort in playing on the puck as well.

All of these are issues that we will break down in the coming weeks, particularly what we know what the markets look like for players who can help mend them. But the key point here is that to make room to add those pieces, you need cap space, and the fastest route to cap space comes by clearing it in the chunks that moving a Core Four piece could provide.

I stand in roughly the same position as I have for the past few years. While I believe in having top-end talent, I’m not attached to it being this top-end talent specifically. At the same time, while I’m open to movement, I’m against the idea of locking into movement and locking into a specific type of return. For me, the market will dictate my feelings as to what Toronto should do, with anything from “move them all” to “move none of them” on the table.

What they should do and what we expect them to do are two different stories at this point, and this quote from Brendan Shanahan on whether the core can still win hints at a likely divorce:

“There is a time, again, not to repeat myself, when you look at the age and development of players and talk about patience. There comes a time when you see certain patterns and trends repeat themselves. Results repeat themselves. That is what we have to do this summer.”

Who Stays, Who Goes?

If you’re running under the assumption that at least one of the Core Four are likely to be on the move this summer, it’s important to zero in and get a better idea of who could potentially be on the market. While spoken about as a collective, it’s not overly difficult to drill this down to one or maybe two individuals.

After all, it’s definitely not going to be Auston Matthews that the Maple Leafs are looking to move. Matthews is well on his way to being the best player ever to wear the sweater in the team’s 100-year history, putting together an unbelievable 69-goal, 107-point season this year which saw him take home his third Rocket Richard Trophy in four years, and a minimum top-3 position in Selke Trophy (Best Defensive Forward) and Ted Lindsay Award (Most Outstanding Player, voted by players) voting. Matthews signed a five-year extension last summer, and short of him asking out, or the Edmonton Oilers knocking on the door to offer Connor McDavid (don’t count on it), this one isn’t happening.

It likely won’t be William Nylander, who for years was considered the top player on this chopping block but now finds himself decently untouchable. Nylander notched his second-consecutive 40-goal season in 2024 and had a career-high 58 assists, leaving no doubt in his superstardom and earning himself an eight-year contract extension. He’s also been the least of the teams’ worries in the playoffs, offering them a threat in transition unlike anyone else on their roster and playing with a calm but focused attitude that has made him arguably their go-to guy in the spring. Nylander missed the first three games of the Boston series due to severe migraines but built up momentum as the series went on, scoring all three of Toronto’s goals in Games 6 and 7 and giving them their best shot at a series win.

John Tavares is a tricky case. Toronto signed him to be a second elite centre six years ago, and he’s, by and large, brought that. At the same time, he’s now 34 years old and his salary has aged the worst of the group, both due to the lack of cap ceiling growth and natural age curves. Tavares is still a very good player, notching 29 goals and 65 points this year while making some big on-and-off-puck plays for the team in the playoffs, but that doesn’t match up with the $11 million price tag. In the short term, moving on from the last year of his contract is the easiest path to creating more efficient salary cap spending. At the same time, it’s a tough sendoff for your captain, and it requires him to waive his no-movement clause, and it requires an acquiring team that won’t ask for a sweetener that cancels out the incentive. This might be possible if Tavares is willing to go to a rebuilding team for a season (maybe to return for cheaper next summer?) after his signing bonus is paid out on July 1st, as it makes his real dollar salary just $910,000 – but there are no guarantees that you find a situation like that which works for the Leafs, Tavares, and the receiving team.

The most likely player to move is winger Mitch Marner. A few years back, this would sound sacrilegious, as the 27-year-old was seen as an encapsulation of the childhood Leafs fan dream – a homegrown talent who was drafted high by his favourite team, made the team relatively quickly, and immediately became a beloved impact player. However, opinion on Marner has soured heavily in recent years, between tense contract negotiations, disappointing playoff performances, and less than stellar PR surrounding him. Marner, to me, has long been the ideal player to move, though we’re now in a tough spot where now that people have warmed up to doing it, it makes much less sense. With just a year left on his $10.9 million contract, his public reputation at an all-time low, and not a lot of control over his destiny with his no-movement clause, the Maple Leafs are likely going to get a heavily deflated return, having to bank on making it up with any cap space gained. Nevertheless, he’s the one player who I would say is more likely than not to move this summer. I’ll devote some time to breaking down how a trade involving him could or should go down in a future piece.

The Mo Rielly Factor

While the focus is on the Core Four right now, it should be noted that they’re not the only players whose futures are in question right now. Notably, there’s been a lot more talk around town about a “Core Five” over the past week or so, dragging Morgan Rielly into the mix.

Rielly is the longest-tenured player on the Maple Leafs roster, playing 791 regular season and 57 playoff games for the team across 11 seasons. Rielly, who turned 30 earlier this spring, has six years remaining after this one on a contract carrying a $7.5 million cap hit. Including him in this conversation last year would have felt blasphemous after a spectacular series against Tampa Bay, but some struggles in the Boston series, and a good but not elite regular season, have given people some pause. Rielly has also missed 27 games across the last two years due to injuries, which is a concern for future performance.

There are issues with a potential Rielly move, ranging from him also having full no-movement protection, to him being Toronto’s strongest suit in one of their biggest needs (defensive puck movement), to his real dollar salary exceeding his cap hit next year ($10 million, no signing bonus), to his cap hit being relatively efficient in the short term. Nevertheless, he’s still an option for a big shakeup, and in the long view, there may be some value in not risking a decline into his mid-30s.

All Eyes On The Markets

Late last week, we saw our first taste of a vanity market involving this potential divorce, when TheScore Bet put up a ‘Core Four No More’ promo for those who believe that one of the four players will get moved ahead of opening night.

Those who saw it immediately were likely delighted with the value, as the prop stood at a whopping +550 on Saturday. The odds dropped to +200 by Sunday, and the prop was off the board entirely by Monday. We at Canada Sports Betting wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this pop up again – be it on theScore or one of the other top Ontario sportsbooks – so keep an eye out.

‘Core Four No More’ – One of Marner, Matthews, Nylander, Tavares Traded By Opening Night