The Toronto Maple Leafs fifth straight early elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs has the fan base of one of the NHL’s most historic franchise demanding changes to the club’s core group, but in their season-ending media availability on Wednesday, Team President Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas indicated that they plan to stay the course with John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, who take up nearly 50% of the club’s $81.5 million salary cap.
“I will say this about our top four — I think any team in the league would love to have any one of them, but we want them, we like them, and we want to keep them here. They are special players. They are all deeply, deeply committed to winning here in Toronto.” Shanahan said. “It is important for us as a management group to continue to develop them. When I say develop, that is also developing them to play in situations — those ones they were just in, have found themselves in over the last couple of years, and have come up short. It is also to support them and surround them with other players that can help them in that development as well.”
Tavares suffered a concussion and knee injury in the first period of Game 1 and did not play the rest of the series, while Matthews (who led the NHL with 41 goals during the regular season) scored one goal and Marner scored none. The only member of the core group that performed up to expectations was Nylander, who led the Leafs with eight points (5 goals, 3 assists) and scored in the first four games of the series.
The Leafs face a number of questions this summer with a dozen unrestricted free agents and just over $12 million in cap space. Goalie Frederik Andersen and David Rittich, forwards Riley Nash and Nick Foligno, and defensemen Ben Hutton and Martin Marincin are unlikely to return, while veterans Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Alex Galchenyuk and Zach Bogosian may be back depending on what their salary demands are.
The two biggest question marks are the future of winger Zach Hyman and defenseman Morgan Rielly. Hyman followed up a pair of 21-goal seasons with 15 goals in 43 games this season and the 28-year old is looking for a significant raise from the $2.25 million AAV he made on a three-year bridge deal.
“I don’t think we need to get into what Zach Hyman means to the club. He has been an excellent player since he arrived here in 2015 and equally as impressive of a person if not more. He comes in every day, puts it all on the line for the team, and we feel very fortunate to have him.” Dubas said. “He is someone we will certainly work to bring back. Brandon Pridham and Todd Reynolds will work at that to see if they can get it across the line. It is a big opportunity for Zach and a big decision for us as well. We will get to work on that here.”
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Rielly has one year left on a six-year, $30 million contract and if the Leafs are unable to extend the 27-year-old, they may be forced to move him for younger, more inexpensive players.
“We haven’t had much discussion on that yet. Morgan is a huge part of what we do here.” Dubas said. “It is going to be a flat cap. It is probably a little bit slower on extensions. Throughout the league this year, there was a lot of going all the way to the end with it — with key players and captains on some great teams. You never want to do that if you don’t have to with guys that are a key part of your team. I think patience is a good thing. That said, we will investigate it here as we go onto the summer. We will definitely have a conversation with (Rielly’s agent JP Barry) about where they may be at and what Morgan may want to do.”
Based on cap restrictions and the disappointing end result of the Maple Leafs season, it should be expected that they will have a very different look next season.