Maple Leafs News & Rumors: O’Reilly, Matthews & Liljegren

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll explore the topics of Ryan O’Reilly’s upcoming decision of where he might play next season. I’ll also share some thoughts about how fortunate Maple Leafs’ fans have been to be able to watch Auston Matthews throughout the early part of his career. 

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Third, I’ll look at Timothy Liljegren’s potential for a breakout season in 2023-24. Finally, I’ll share a note from Elliotte Friedman that comes from an internal discussion generated by the Maple Leafs’ organization about how they wish to re-cast the discourse around what has come to be known as the “Core Four.”

Item One: O’Reilly’s Decision Is Upcoming Soon

Ryan O’Reilly faces a dilemma. From his comments, he loved his short time playing in Toronto for his favourite team as a child. But now, as the 2023-24 regular season approaches, he has a choice. Does he have or desire a future with the Maple Leafs? Or, at his “advanced” age of 32 years old, does he go for one more big payday?

Ryan O'Reilly Toronto Maple Leafs
Ryan O’Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When the Maple Leafs acquired him at the trade deadline, he came to the team with high expectations. In a way, he didn’t let anyone down. He delivered what the team expected in terms of leadership and on-ice play. However, if anyone thought that O’Reilly’s presence would be the tipping point, it just didn’t happen. 

There’s no doubt he elevated the Maple Leafs’ chances of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but by himself he wasn’t the difference-maker. Even given his contributions during the playoffs, it appears unlikely he’ll return to Toronto. O’Reilly expressed gratitude for his time with the organization and mentioned how much he enjoyed his experience. It sounds as if he was looking back before looking forward. He seems to know his chances of signing with the team are slim.

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Who can blame O’Reilly for his desire to sign as lucrative a contract as he can? It might be the last major deal of his career. The projected contract for O’Reilly is a four-year term worth $5.5 million per season. 

There are two issues with signing O’Reilly. First, as always, it seems the Maple Leafs’ have salary cap constraints. They would need to make more roster moves to accommodate such a contract. In addition, O’Reilly’s footspeed has become a limitation and might not align with the team’s desire to add speed to the lineup.

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Would O’Reilly sign a lower-term and lower-average annual value (AAV) deal just to play in Toronto? He’s not at the same career stage as Mark Giordano. Given these factors, Maple Leafs’ fans should expect to see O’Reilly sign with a team that offers him a higher and that fits him better. 

Item Two: If Matthews Goes, We’ll Miss Him

Auston Matthews is the Maple Leafs’ star player. Since he came to the team, the team’s fortunes have made a 180-degree reversal. He has been part of the team’s move to be among the elite teams of the NHL.

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What a profound impact he’s made. In his rookie 2016-17 season, Matthews started strong. But we’ve all watched him grow. He’s displayed a remarkable growing maturity both on and off the ice. He’s an elite goal scorer. From his impressive rookie season with 40 goals to a franchise-record 60-goal performance in 2021-22, Matthews has consistently found the back of the net. As Maple Leafs’ fans, we’ve been front and center in watching him showcase and grow his natural talent. 

Few people point this out about Matthews, but he has a solid work ethic. He might be known best for his goal-scoring prowess, but he has also developed as a playmaker. He regularly catches puck carriers from behind to strip them from the puck. His assist totals have steadily increased over the seasons. His career-high 46 assists in the 2021-22 season show his evolution into a well-rounded offensive threat. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Moreover, Matthews has continually raised his point production, with a career-best 106 points in 2021-22. He has solidified his status as one of the NHL’s premier offensive talents. But Matthews’ impact extends past the score sheet. He’s improved his plus/minus rating. In 2022-23, he registered a team-leading plus-31 rating. 

Matthews’ journey in the NHL has been spectacular. And, as fans, we’ve watched him begin to push the boundaries of his potential. He’s become a dominant force and the cornerstone of the Maple Leafs. 

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There’s been recent talk about him leaving the team. If he does leave, he will have left an indelible mark on the history of this franchise. He’s had a captivating ride here with the Maple Leafs, far beyond his statistical achievements.

Item Three: Time for a Breakout Season by Timothy Liljegren?

A recent post by THW colleague Peter Baracchini looks at three Maple Leafs’ players he believes are poised to have a bigger role in 2023-24. I encourage readers who haven’t read the post to follow the link and do so. I’m pleased he put Timothy Liljegren into that trio.

Timothy Liljegren Toronto Maple Leafs
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I agree that Maple Leafs’ fans have reasons to be excited about Liljegren’s upcoming season. Despite limited playing time and occasional healthy scratches, the young Swedish defenseman has shown fans glimpses of his potential as a two-way defenseman. Sure, he makes some mistakes, but these seem due to his inexperience.

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Given the anticipated roster changes, I’m looking for him to take advantage of this opportunity and make great strides as a defenseman. He has the skills. He’s an effective puck-mover and his defence is improving. There’s no reason to believe that Liljegren does not have the potential to become a valuable top-four blueliner. 

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Moreover, his potential offensive contributions add an extra dimension to his game. All this makes him a promising prospect for a regular top-four spot and a key presence on the roster. Good luck to him in the upcoming season.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

In an interesting 32 Thoughts podcast on Sportsnet, Elliotte Friedman shared a report from the Maple Leafs that critiqued the discourse around the team’s “Core Four.” He noted that the concept of the Core Four, plus 19 other players, was thought to have impacted the team’s ability to team-build and create an overall team identity. 

He noted that, while there are no negative feelings around any of the players who make up that “so-called’ unit (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, or John Tavares) thinking of the team as these four players and basically the team’s other players – who are often seen as add-ons or extras – has overshadowed other aspects of the team. 

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s a good point. Friedman noted that the collective sentiment among the team’s coaching staff, front office, and organization was that the emphasis on the Core Four must be toned down. The better way forward, both in talk and in action, is to create a more balanced and inclusive approach that recognizes the entire roster’s contributions beyond just the four prominent players.

A wise decision from my perspective.

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