Will the core Maple Leafs stay united? Matthews, Nylander, Marner and Tavares talk about uncertainty

TORONTO – Auston Matthews understands the core of this Maple Leafs team and its playoff failures as well, if not better, than any other player. The team’s rebuild received the boost it needed when the Leafs drafted Matthews No. 1 in 2016.

But after losing in five games to the Florida Panthers in the second round of the playoffs, change is coming from top to bottom for this Leafs team. With just one playoff victory under this core since 2016, when Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander started playing together, and then when John Tavares signed as a free agent in 2018, the future of each of the team’s main forwards is inevitably in question.

“I feel like it’s a bit up in the air,” is how Matthews described what the Leafs could look like when the puck drops in the 2023-24 season.

The organization of this year’s end of season availability was a change from some years past – a bit more chaotic – and seemed to speak to a strange sense of turmoil around a team that was probably going through at least some upheaval. in the wings. End-of-season availabilities can often be an exercise in trying to extract the meaning of a novel from a sentence here and there. But it’s also an opportunity for some players to speak with a sense of honesty that they might sometimes hold back in the heat of the moment.

So what did Monday’s availability reveal about the future of the Leafs core?

“I think my faith in our main players and the guys that are here has never wavered, and I still believe in that,” Matthews said.

No member of that core has shown greater confidence in his future than the one who matters most to the Leafs: Matthews, whose five-year contract expires on July 1, 2024. He is eligible to sign an extension on July 1. 2023 and said before this season that he would not answer any questions about his next contract.

On Monday, he was as declarative as he has ever been.

“My intention is to be here. I think I’ve (reiterated) that before, how much I love playing here and what it means to me and the organization, my teammates, and how much I just love being here,” said Matthews, wearing a Leafs-brand hat and sweatshirt.

The 2022 Hart Trophy winner looked the most relaxed of any player who spoke on Monday, leaning against a wall and smiling as he answered questions about his future and how important it is for him to play. secure a future contract before the start of next season.

“I think it’s important, and everything will work out in due time and (I will) go from there. But as far as everything else goes, like I said before, I really enjoy playing here,” said Matthews, who has two points in five second-round games.

So much can change by July 1st with management that could impact Matthews’ decision, but right now there was no gray area in the way Matthews was talking about his future.

“It’s a real honor,” Matthews said of playing for the Leafs. “And the work in which we strive to continue striving to achieve this end result is motivating.”

As such, how can we – again, right now – not hear how he professed to love being in Toronto and infer anything other than Matthews committing to the organization in his next contract?

There was more of that sentiment from Matthews’ friend and frequent linemate Mitch Marner.

“I think that’s beyond me,” Marner said of the possibility of him being traded before his no-move clause kicks in July 1. “I can’t control any of this. So we’ll see what happens.

You could see the question of his future bringing Marner back a bit, especially after he seemed confident throughout his availability.

Marner’s future in Toronto, and whether the Leafs can win with him in the playoffs, again deserves at least some discussion. After a sluggish regular season in which he scored 99 points, Marner made frequent mistakes with the puck in a key game three against the Panthers and produced far less in the final series of the year against the Panthers. Florida with just three points in five. Games.

He acknowledged the pressure that comes with playing in Toronto, as he has in the past, and clearly wants the chance to do it right in the playoffs next season.

“I think like I said, I was very lucky to play for this team and I want to keep playing for this team and hopefully I can play for this team,” Marner said.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the increased pressure on Marner might at least make him open to playing in a different venue.

But if we are to believe what Marner said on Monday, this pressure is not new to him and can be managed. The only moment of levity we got from Marner was a candid admission of how he watched TSN every morning from the age of five to 20.

“Expectations are always high,” Marner said. “And that’s something I grew up in and have known all my life.

“It’s everything I ever dreamed of as a kid and being able to do it now is quite surreal. So hopefully I can continue this honor and be with this team,” he said. he adds.

When William Nylander emerged, his smirk was constant. Like Matthews, he looked quiet as he answered questions. With just one year remaining on his contract and the lowest cap ($6.9 million) of any major player in question, his name has long been on the chopping block.

And so he probably knew that questions about his future would be harder and quicker than those about the team’s play against the Panthers.

“I’ve got a full year,” Nylander said when asked about a strong start to his next contract. He is officially eligible to sign an extension on July 1.

But reading between the lines, this line (again, end-of-season availabilities are often about grabbing straws) suggests that Nylander might want to spend next season continually raising his game, like he did in 2022. -23, to increase its value for a contract that much more. The winger has, after all, elevated his game through two rounds of the playoffs in a way that all other Leafs core members haven’t.

Perhaps a massive extension offered before the start of next season might be too good for Nylander to pass up. Perhaps he doesn’t want to see future negotiations stretch as long as his last contract, when he missed the first two months of the 2018-19 season.

But there is one thing that is not in dispute: Nylander wants to stay in Toronto.

“I really enjoy it here. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is where I want to win,” Nylander said.

Finally, John Tavares. The Leafs captain has been aggressively resolved in each of his year-end appearances as the Leaf. He’s the man who repeatedly said the team would keep ‘knocking on the door’ until they knocked it down.

But for the first time in five seasons in Toronto, he seemed to at least understand that a change in the composition of the team was on the way.

“A lot of that is beyond me,” Tavares said of this team’s future, suggesting at the very least that Tavares knows the team’s future is out of his control. . “But I think there’s continued confidence in our group here. I think the standard that we have, and what we’re trying to accomplish, just keeps pushing for more. Obviously, winning is extremely difficult.

Tavares is perhaps the player least likely to be moved, at least on paper, given his no-move clause. If the playoffs alone were any indication, Tavares is the player whose role looks likely to diminish over the remainder of his contract. His five-on-five production has dwindled since his first season in Toronto and at 32, he is the oldest of the team’s main forwards.

Nevertheless, after Tavares was asked about the possibility of giving up his NMC (he still has two years left with an $11 million cap), he returned to his resolute and familiar ways.

“I love it here,” Tavares said. “Obviously I’ve committed here for seven years to be a Leaf and I want to be here. So that’s how I feel.

Now that’s a good question because that’s one of the concerns of the fans and it’s clear that having new cap space would be beneficial for this team. But Tavares – unsurprisingly – didn’t entertain the idea at all.

“I love being captain and I take that responsibility very seriously and I feel really lucky and I still think there is a tremendous opportunity for our team here in the near and long term future,” he said. he declares.

Tavares is probably right. If any semblance of the core of this team returns, they should remain in contention for a playoff run in the near future.

But for the first time in the history of this core, the emphasis on the “if” must be interpreted quite differently.

(Photo by Auston Matthews, left, and Mitch Marner, right: Dan Hamilton/USA Today)

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