The year 2022 was a mixed bag for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Buds set a new franchise record in standings points, with 115 last season. And superstar center Auston Matthews won his first-ever Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player while setting a new Leafs record for goals scored (60) in a single season. However, those achievements were overshadowed by another letdown in the post-season, with Toronto blowing a 3-2 first-round series lead and losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.
One way or another, 2023 is going to be a huge year for the Leafs. Once again, they’re proving to be a hell of a regular-season team, but if they follow that up with another first-round exit, the ramifications will be significant and affect everyone from their core-four forwards to the job of GM Kyle Dubas.
If the Leafs do get out of the first round and go on a deep playoff run, Dubas will get a contract extension, and their top-four forward group of Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander will remain in Blue and White. Head coach Sheldon Keefe also will be in line for a contract extension, and team president Brendan Shanahan will happily provide it. Leafs fans will be delighted to see real progress, especially if it comes with a first-round win over Atlantic Division rivals such as Boston and the Bolts.
But if Toronto can’t build upon their current regular-season successes, all bets will be off about the future of this team. Certainly, it’s highly unlikely that Matthews or Marner will be traded, and Tavares has a full no-movement clause in his contract. But Nylander, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024, might be the one who gets moved, even if he’s coming off of a career-best year on offense. Change has to come somewhere, and Nylander will be the easiest to trade.
That said, the Leafs’ defense corps might get a serious makeover if Toronto fails to win a playoff round. Cornerstone blueliner Morgan Rielly also is unlikely to be dealt, but youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin could be on the trade block. Both Liljegren and Sandin are under contract through the 2023-24 campaign, but neither has a no-trade or no-move clause in their deals, and would be appealing to many potential Leafs trade partners.
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And if Toronto does underwhelm once again in the postseason, it’s possible there will be a new GM reshaping its roster. Dubas should be praised for building a regular-season leviathan, but if it doesn’t amount to tangible success in the playoffs, it doesn’t mean much at all. Dubas will celebrate his fifth year as Leafs GM as of May, and in a hockey fishbowl like Toronto, executives don’t get many more kicks at the can without at least a few playoff series victories.
There’s never a dull moment in Toronto, and that’s not going to change this season. Dubas and his team are under the microscope like never before, and the pressure to produce is tremendous. That’s part of the allure of playing for the Leafs when they’re winning, and one of the drawbacks of wearing Blue and White when the Buds are losing. People are all-in invested in this franchise, for better and for worse, and for too long, the bottom line has been for worse.
The coming year will be about as newsworthy as it gets for the Leafs. Either they make the next step competitively, or momentous change has to happen. There’s no in-between anymore, no time for excuses or prolonged patience. The rubber is hitting the road, and improvement is the only way to prevent a different Leafs team from being put together next season.
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