It seems like only yesterday that the Toronto Maple Leafs won the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery, and used the pick to draft superstar Auston Matthews.
That same season, a 20-year-old William Nylander burned up the AHL by scoring 18 goals and 27 assists (for 45 points) in 38 games for a more than a point-a-game pace and didn’t slow down much when he was called up to the big team, adding six goals and seven assists (for 13 points) in 22 games.
Finally, 19-year-old Mitch Marner had just finished his second season of terrorizing the junior leagues, scoring more than two points a game with the OHL’s London Knights. During 2014-15 he tallied 44 goals and 82 assists (for 126 points) in 63 games; he followed up in 2015-16 by adding 39 goals and 77 assists (for 116 points) in 57 games with the same team.
The Maple Leafs future looked blindingly bright, and Maple Leafs’ fans everywhere were in a frenzy.
Now, Five Years Later, the Maple Leafs Have Not Taken the Next Step
Eventually the years have passed; and, now here we are, five years into the Shanaplan. (Six years if you count the year of the “tank.”) As disappointing as these years have been, in many ways the Maple Leafs have been hugely successful. Ironically, at the same time, in many fans’ eyes they’ve accomplished absolutely nothing.
Year after year seems the same. The team has become a much better regular season team, having secured playoff spots for five years in a row. That’s something that hasn’t happened since the 2003-2004 season, before the implementation of the salary cap.
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However, during those five seasons, the Maple Leafs have not won a single playoff series. That they’ve been excruciatingly close but lost in the end only has worked to push expectations higher, which makes the disappointment even more difficult to bear. (see “My message to Maple Leafs fans: learn to chill a little,” Gary Mason, The Globe and Mail, 3/6/21).
Matthews, Marner, and Nylander’s Contracts Are Now Half Gone
Now, Matthews and Marner are both approaching the halfway points of their present contracts. Nylander is past his contract’s halfway point. Changes to what was regarded as key parts to the core have already started with the departure of Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen. After next season, Morgan Rielly’s contract expires, and it looks more and more like he might be gone.
Is time running out on this version of the Maple Leafs? The core of the team that’s left is still very young. Matthews is only a month away from his 24th birthday. Marner is still only 24. And Nylander is only 25. All three are really just entering their primes. However, given the current state of the NHL, there are no guarantees that any of the three will remain Maple Leafs beyond their present contracts.
Matthews Is the Key Piece of the Maple Leafs’ Puzzle
Obviously Matthews is the most important piece of the puzzle. He has just three years left on his present five-year contract at $11.64 million per season. Perhaps even more significant is that he has a No Move Clause (NMC) that kicks in during the last year of his contract.
That means the Maple Leafs will have a window that runs between January 1, 2023, and July 1, 2023, to decide if Matthews wants to remain a Maple Leafs’ player and to negotiate his next contract before the NMC kicks in.
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While it’s been the recent operating procedure for the Maple Leafs to let potential free agent’s contracts run out (Tyson Barrie and Zach Hyman to mention two recently), for a player of Matthews’ stature, the return on a trade would be huge.
It would be like the Pittsburgh Penguins trading Sidney Crosby or the Edmonton Oilers trading Connor McDavid. A player like Matthews doesn’t come along that often. If the organization knows Matthews plans to see what the open market will bring during free agency, the Maple Leafs would be wise to, at the very least, explore the market for him.
If that scenario were to happen, it could mean that the Maple Leafs would only have Matthews for two more seasons – starting now. We’ll say that again: there’s a chance that the Maple Leafs will only have Auston Matthews two more seasons starting in 2021-22.
For the Maple Leafs, It’s Win and Win Now
With that in mind, the Maple Leafs need to win and win now. Teams have two ways to entice players to play for them. The first is money, and the second is a chance to win a Stanley Cup. If the Maple Leafs don’t show they are serious contenders for Lord Stanley’s Cup, that takes away one enticement for Matthews to re-sign with the organization.
If the Maple Leafs lose Matthews, it would likely be a serious blow to the organization’s future. It would certainly be the end of an era.
There’s no way that Maple Leafs’ President Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas, and head coach Sheldon Keefe don’t know what’s happening and think about it regularly.
What seemed like a glorious future not so long ago has now become the present; and, that present is quickly becoming the past. The 2021-22 season is the first of two crucial seasons for the Maple Leafs’ as an organization. Time is running out.
[Note: Again I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.