Maple Leafs’ Core Four Need to Finally Lead This Team

Over the seasons that I’ve watched the Toronto Maple Leafs, one thing I’ve learned about this organization’s ownership is that it learns from season to season. At the end of each of the past three seasons, the leadership group of head coach Sheldon Keefe, general manager Kyle Dubas, and Maple Leafs’ President Brendan Shanahan got together to decide what went right and what went wrong. Then that group set out to fix what went wrong.

Related: Maple Leafs’ 2020-21 Season Saw a Mitch Marner Transformation

Usually these plans work, at least to a greater or lesser extent. For example, last season the team set out to improve the defense – and did so. It also tried to bring in some added grit and brought in Zach Bogosian and Wayne Simmonds. That, sort of, worked – although Simmonds’ injury curtailed his effectiveness later in the season. 

This Season, Leadership Will Come from the Inside or Not At All

One thing that Maple Leafs’ fans will notice about this season’s team is that the organization’s front office has not brought in any veterans to add extra leadership to the team. Last season, Joe Thornton was brought in at the start of the season and Nick Foligno was brought in at the trade deadline. It didn’t get the team past the first round of the playoffs, and those players left during the offseason.

This season, the Maple Leafs choose not to bring in any new leadership experience to the organization. They’ll enter this season with the roster they have. The leadership that’s already on the team – the Core Four and others – will be called upon to lead this team, for good or for bad.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The front office has made the decision to let the current roster figure this thing out. Many would argue that it’s about time for this to happen. John Tavares is 31 and is in the second half of his career. He was the captain of the New York Islanders in the past and is now the Maple Leafs’ captain. That’s his role – to be the leader.

The rest of the core is maturing by NHL standards. Auston Matthews is 24 and already halfway through his contract. Mitch Marner is also 24; William Nylander is 25, and Morgan Rielly is 27. Jake Muzzin’s leadership has grown since he arrived from the Los Angeles Kings, and he’s 32.

Related: Phil Kessel – Biography

This is the time for that core to take over the leadership of the team. The front office has done a lot to try and supplement the roster with talent and experience over the past few seasons, and it hasn’t worked to help the team get over the hump of winning during the playoffs. Now it’s up to the players who are here to lead the way.

This Leadership Situation Isn’t New: Consider the Pittsburgh Penguins

When Sidney Crosby was a young player, it was obvious he was going to be both an NHL star and a leader. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins brought in players like Bill Guerin to provide experience (and talent) to a young Penguins’ roster. Part of that move was likely also to help guide a young Crosby who was only in his age-21 and 22 seasons when the Penguins went to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009. At some point, the Penguins front office gave Crosby the team to lead.

This season, it’s time for that to happen with the Maple Leafs. The team’s leadership will come from those players who are already on the roster. The team that’s here is here. The core will now not just be counted on to score, it will also be counted on for leadership. This season Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Muzzin, Rielly, Nylander, T.J. Brodie, Jason Spezza, and Simmonds will lead the team wherever it will go.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That leadership better be enough. Because the organization is counting on it for the team’s success. If they don’t make it, as most hockey fans suggest, heads will likely roll. 

Where does that leave the team? The answer is probably right where it should be this season. It’s time for the leaders on the team to become the leaders on the team. As my Maple Leafs’ writing colleague Alex Hobson often says, it’s on the players.

Keefe’s First Full Season as Maple Leafs’ Head Coach 

This is a make-or-break season. It’s the first season head coach Keefe has had a typical offseason, a typical preseason, and a typical 82-game schedule to show what he can do with this team. Obviously, things have changed. Zach Hyman’s gone, but in his place others have arrived. Those others have to take up the slack – and do it well. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Emerging from the Chaos

I’m wondering if the seriousness and the weight of that leadership were seen during Friday night’s blue and white game. Long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith, with whom I often collaborate, noted that Marner scored a goal but didn’t so much as crack a smile. Maybe this season he’s becoming less concerned with having fun on the ice than grinding out wins – regardless of whether they’re fun or not. 

If that’s true and both Marner and Matthews can develop that same serious attitude about winning, they might just become an even more formidable force than last season and find the postseason success that’s eluded them.

Nick Foligno Morgan Rielly Mitchell Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Foligno will not be counted on for leadership with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season
(Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

Keefe knows the deal; it’s about winning during the postseason. The first episode of the Amazon series showed Keefe saying that what the Maple Leafs did during the regular season didn’t matter. It was how they performed during the playoffs.

This Season, No Thornton and No Other Outsiders

When Maple Leafs’ fans watch their team play this season, they’ll see one major difference in this team this season. The Maple Leafs didn’t add outside team leadership during the offseason. Could have – didn’t.

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The leadership on this team is going to come from the Core Four and others. No one Dubas brought in fills anything close to a leadership role. There are no more leadership crutches to lean on; the roster is tasked with walking on its own. 

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