The 2022-23 NHL regular season is drawing closer, and with it, the narratives surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs will come into clearer focus. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that a large part of the pressure on the organization will be centered around the Buds’ core of elite forwards. There is a caveat, of course; coming off of an astonishing regular season that saw him win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player – and after reaching the 60-goal plateau for the first time in his professional career – Matthews doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone.
Similarly, Matthews’ linemate, winger Mitch Marner, posted a career-best 35 goals and 97 points in 72 games, and underscored his status as one of the best young players in the sport; if he’d have played a full season, Marner, like Matthews, would’ve reached the 100-point mark for the first time as an NHLer, and he too doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody – at least, as far as the regular-season goes.
That said, it’s the other two forwards in Toronto’s lineup – as well as the bottom three forward lines – that are going to undergo intense scrutiny, fair or not. And the heat of the spotlight starts with stars John Tavares and William Nylander.
Now, there’s plenty of evidence both Nylander and Tavares weather more than their share of unfair criticism. Tavares has been a point-per-game player for virtually the entirety of his 13-year NHL career, and last season, in 79 games, he generated 49 assists – one fewer helper than his career-high – and 76 points. Night after night, he is one of Toronto’s hardest players on the puck, and his consistency on offense sets a high bar for much of the team. His $11-million-per-season salary sets him up for criticism his numbers should be higher, but with Matthews and Marner leading the way, the Leafs don’t need Tavares to challenge for the Art Ross Trophy as the game’s best point-producer. They just need quality minutes for him, a solid defensive work ethic, and leadership by example.
Nylander, meanwhile, is five years younger than Tavares, and at times last season, the Swedish winger was dropped to the Leafs’ third line. That didn’t stop Nylander from posting career highs in goals (34), assists (46) and points (80) in 81 games. He and Tavares averaged essentially the same amount of ice time – 18 minutes a night – and Nylander delivered what was asked of him in return for the relative bargain of $6.9 million per season. The difference between Nylander and Tavares is the term of their contracts, with Nylander under team control for this coming season and the following season, and Tavares locked up through the 2024-25 campaign.
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Certainly, there would be many suitors lining up to bid on Nylander’s services if Leafs GM Kyle Dubas made him available, but it’s highly unlikely that will happen, absent some team-wide funk that includes Nylander’s performance. Now, if Toronto fails to get out of the first round of the 2023 post-season, all bets are off, and Tavares’ salary makes him much more difficult to move than Nylander. But the search for more balance up front could make Nylander a trade block asset. And Nylander’s lack of a no-trade clause makes him vulnerable to a move in a way the Leafs’ top three other forwards are not.
To be sure, Toronto has had more change in their bottom-six group of forwards this off-season, with veteran winger Calle Jarnkrok coming in to play on the third line, and former Colorado forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel and forward Adam Gaudette signed to shore up the fourth line. Dubas needs more help from his bottom-six forwards, but make no mistake – the bulk of the responsibility falls on the Leafs’ top-two lines to power the team’s engine and help them succeed when games matter most.
If that doesn’t happen, there will be bigger changes on the horizon for Toronto next off-season, and Nylander likely will be the guy to pay the price by moving elsewhere. Again, it’s not fair to blame him for any shortcomings – the Leafs’ goaltending also will be a massive factor in their bottom line – but when it comes to their core-four forwards group, Nylander will be the asset most likely to bear the brunt of the fury that will assuredly follow another letdown.
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