Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Trade Matthews, Marner, or Nylander

The Toronto Maple Leafs are entering an offseason that promises to see some real changes in their team. It’s likely not going to be a situation of running the same group back yet again. Everything about the media interviews that closed out the end of the year spoke to the real possibility of changes to core people.

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In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at some of the rumours floating around from other writers who cover the team. I’ll also take a look at a recent entry-level contract signing with a young goalie named Vyacheslav Peksa. Where might he fit within the organization?

Item One: Reasons to Trade Auston Matthews & Not Mitch Marner

Howard Berger, who is the author of the long-time Maple Leafs’ hockey blog titled “Between the Posts” makes a passionate argument about why Auston Matthews, despite his regular-season success and accolades, should be traded. Berger’s point is that Matthews has consistently underperformed in the playoffs. 

Related: Maple Leafs Risk Losing Matthews if They Let Dubas Depart

Berger adds that Matthews lacks the necessary drive and determination to elevate his performance when it matters most. He also adds that the Maple Leafs will soon go down a dark rabbit hole if they re-negotiate his new contract before July 1.

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

On the other hand, Berger argues against trading Mitch Marner. In his view, Marner is a player with great skill and playmaking abilities. He also suggests that Marner’s playoff numbers have been hindered by his linemate Matthews’ struggles to score goals in the postseason. He believes that pairing Marner differently would add a playoff dynamic that would yield better results.

Item Two: Maple Leafs Sign Goalie Vyacheslav Peksa to ELC

Peksa, a goaltender selected by the Maple Leafs in the sixth round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, has signed a three-year entry-level contract (ELC) with the team. He had an impressive season playing for Bars Kazan in the VHL, posting a 13-19-6 record, a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.34, and a save percentage (SV%) of .921 in 40 games during the 2022-23 season. 

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For fans who don’t know much about Bars Kazan, it’s a Russian professional ice hockey team based in Kazan that competes in the Supreme Hockey League (VHL). The VHL is the second-tier professional ice hockey league in Russia.

Related: Edmonton Oilers’ Top 5 Draft Picks of Ken Holland Era

Bars Kazan is a feeder club for Ak Bars Kazan, which is one of the key teams in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The affiliation means that players from Bars Kazan can be called up to play for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL when needed, as they are part of the same organization. It’s similar to the relationship between the Maple Leafs and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate the Toronto Marlies.

In the same way that Marlies players rise to the Maple Leafs, the affiliation between VHL and KHL teams allows for young players to develop and progress through the ranks to earn spots on KHL teams. 

Peksa has shown significant improvement since the Maple Leafs drafted him. That he signed an ELC suggests that he’s regarded as a bona fide goalie prospect in the organization. His current contract with Ak Bars Kazan extends until the 2025-26 season, and it’s expected that he will continue his development in the VHL. However, that contract could be terminated if it seems better that he plays at a higher level.

Related: Ex-Maple Leafs Goalie Michael Hutchinson: Where’s He Now?

For the upcoming season, the teams in the Maple Leafs organization (the Marlies, and their ECHL affiliate the Newfoundland Growlers) are loaded with solid goalie prospects. As a result, Peksa’s chances of playing in North America soon are slim. In fact, with Joseph Woll’s stock rising within the organization, it would seem beneficial that Peksa continues playing in the Russian leagues.

Item Three: It Would Seem It’s Either Marner or Nylander

I’m not the only one thinking that if the Maple Leafs don’t run back the same group as they did before, trading a Core Four member comes down to either William Nylander or Mitch Marner. Luke Fox, in his post on Wednesday, speculated about the possibility of the Maple Leafs trading either Nylander or Marner.

If he’s correct, and I believe he is, someone will be unhappy. Both players have expressed a desire to remain with the Maple Leafs because they have strong attachments to the organization. That said, with the larger salaries comes the possibility of a big trade. That seems to be the nature of the business.

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

Nylander’s current contract ends after next season, while Marner’s has two years remaining. However, both players have full no-move clauses that will be activated on July 1. That means there are six weeks to do something – or nothing. 

Fox notes that, if the Maple Leafs decide to make a significant trade involving one of their elite forwards, it would likely be to bring in immediate help, which would probably be a top-pair defenseman or a “different style” of top-six forward. There’s no interest in trading for prospects and picks.

Fox believes the way the two contracts are structured will help the team move either contract. That’s because the team where they land will pay less than the contract calls for. As Fox reports it, Marner only costs $8.025 million in real dollars for each of his final two years, and Nylander only $6 million. 

Related: Canucks’ Best & Worst Trades All-Time

Those lower actual dollars in the final years could make them desirable targets for other teams. For teams trying to reach the salary-cap floor, taking on a contract that costs less than what is paid provides potential cap relief for a team who lands either of the forwards. Some teams that have significant salary-cap space include the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, and Chicago Blackhawks. The Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, and Buffalo Sabres also currently have salary-cap space.

Tom Wilson Washington Capitals
Could Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals be on his way to the Maple Leafs?
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Some of the players and teams that were mentioned as potential trade targets or trade partners in the speculation were, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram from the Colorado Avalanche, Tom Wilson from the Washington Capitals, Travis Konecny from the Philadelphia Flyers, Tyler Bertuzzi (a pending free agent), Elias Lindholm from the Calgary Flames, and young defensemen like Vince Dunn, Cam York, Jamie Drysdale, and K’Andre Miller. All are currently restricted free agents.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

How far we have come from where we were just a couple of weeks ago when the Maple Leafs beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now we are fielding suggestions to trade Matthews, Marner, or Nylander. All three players are highly talented and have been valuable assets and significant contributors to the team’s success. 

Now Maple Leafs’ management must weigh the potential benefits and risks of any trade scenario. Decisions made during the next six weeks will have huge ripple effects over the next few seasons.

The nature of the business is a phrase that just keeps coming back to me as I write my posts each day. I’m glad I’m not the boss.