On the brink again, do Toronto’s ‘Core Four’ still believe in themselves?

Sam McKee of Leafs Talk lets loose on the Toronto Maple Leafs after their Game 3 loss in overtime, specifically mentioning Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews' performances as reasons fans should be disappointed.

The Maple Leafs have not been eliminated from the playoffs yet, not quite, but the post-mortems are being pre-written.

Over the years of previous playoff disappointments I’ve talked with hundreds of radio guests about what’s cost this team most, and it’s safe to say there’s been no simple answer, as bad as fans have wanted one. One person will say it’s simply been underwhelming goaltending, some have said the power play let them down, others will say their fourth line or their D or whatever weren’t properly constructed. Many have questioned the group’s intangibles, things like grit and toughness and character. That often includes the core four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares, but those criticisms have generally been applied with a broad-stroked brush.

The team has lacked toughness, they’ve said.

But something I notice the very most is that the same people who will critique the team at large on the air are more hesitant to directly say any one of those players can’t or won’t have playoff success. People said that about Phil Kessel, who then went on to be a great playoff performer when put in the right situation. Jay Bouwmeester wasn’t a playoff winner until he was. The most recent playoff darling, Matthew Tkachuk, had 15 points in 27 post-season games before finding it this year with another 15 points in 10 games (he’s a different style player, but the offence was slow coming). The fear that those Leafs players will suddenly find their offence has left most analysts holding their tongue.

With that possibility in mind, Kyle Dubas has repeatedly bet on the Leafs’ talent exploding and proving everyone wrong, at some point.

But off the air, where you’re less beholden to your “takes,” some of those same people will pick a core player directly and say “no jam” or “no competitiveness” or “no passion.” I’ve heard it about all four of these Leafs.

Like former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary once said about his own player, “You can’t win with that guy.” I’d wager some flavour of that criticism exists in 95 per cent of today’s Leafs-themed group chats. As someone who covers the team, I can’t write about them without writing about that — that jam, that competitiveness, that passion.

For a team and fanbase branded with The Passion, those accusations are damning, and after the Game 3 loss, that conversation has been pulled from the darkness and thrust into the light.

A complicating reality here is that the “core four” are not a unit, and in fact are four individual hockey players who are exceedingly different in most ways. It’s that shared trait – the lack of “eff you,” if you will – that’s been focused on, but they really are different.

This post-season has encapsulated their differences and tendencies perfectly.

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Nylander has alternated between being a liability and being the best player on the ice from game to game, sometimes shift to shift. In one game a Nylander breakdown will cost them a goal against, in the next nobody can get the puck from him.

Tavares has had a couple power play points and been dangerous in tight, but when he’s not getting a puck within 10 feet of the net, he hasn’t been consistently impactful. You can’t fairly say he doesn’t try, but you can question his ability to control the run of play while giving that effort.

Matthews has been the best of the group, scoring five goals (on over four shots per game) and 11 points in nine games. His strength is that when he’s not scoring he’s still contributing – he blocks shots and turns pucks over and wins faceoffs. The reality for a guy who won the Hart Trophy, though, is that his expectations are different from the others, and he’s falling short of that bar.

Fans see Connor McDavid yelling at his teammates to spur them on. You see Nathan MacKinnon ready to jump out of his own skin over missed calls. You’ve seen Sidney Crosby go to war with individuals on the other team in the post-season. Matthews is the de-facto captain, the next in line anyway, and so the expectations on him fall within that cluster of players.

For a fanbase defined by The Passion, Matthews’ quiet effectiveness isn’t satisfactory (and even less so when he isn’t effective, as in Game 3). The fans justifiably want loud when the moment gets loud, and in this series, Matthews has quietly capitulated where the league’s exceptional few have found ways to separate themselves from even the other great players in the league. 

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The real conundrum here is Marner. The Leafs winger had six points in their opening 7-3, 7-2 decisions against Tampa Bay (which included a couple shots from distance that got some luck) and some power play assists. He has no goals and one single power play assist over the past four games (and hasn’t scored in seven). While Marner does kill penalties, his recent five-on-five threat level is almost non-existent, not only because he isn’t creating as much, but also because he’s struggling to manage the puck effectively.

What’s caught my eye most is a stylistic change from how Marner plays in the regular season. I don’t know if it’s nerves, or if it’s just the way the game changes in the playoffs, but when it’s more physical out there, the only way to be able to maintain your non-physical game is to skate, skate, skate away from pressure, like prime Patrick Kane. You have to be able to do it at speed. And Marner’s post-season default has been to try and slow things down too much, and punt, punt, punt on his touches.

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In the regular season, the Leafs’ talented winger led his team in D-zone exits – both carry-outs and passes – and he did it with the fourth-highest success rate on his attempts (that’s among Leafs forwards who played about 25 games this season, via Sportlogiq). In the playoffs, he dropped in every category, and his success rate dropped to eighth among Leafs forwards. Even when he’s tried to dump the puck out, his success rate has dropped a few percentage points there too, likely due to increased pressure.

What might be most concerning, is Marner’s inability to get through the neutral zone and do something effective with the puck. His strength has been controlling the pace of play and dictating to opponents what’s going to happen next. Typically when they’ve wanted him to relinquish the puck, he’ll slow it down, go east-west, and seem to defy hockey’s natural rhythms. In the post-season sometimes you have to take what’s there rather than turn it over, meaning dump-in rates go up. Marner’s dump-in rate has indeed gone from 31.8 per cent to 37.3 per cent (which is a lot), but the Leafs are only recovering his dump-ins a team-worst 19.4 per cent of the time, where in the regular season they recovered 42.2 per cent of his dumped pucks (second-best on the team).

It feels like he’s not skating and is rushing plays, so he’s not even putting the puck in places that help the group. I don’t think he isn’t trying or doesn’t care or anything like that, but not everyone rises to the big moments a la Justin Williams (or more recently, Leon Draisaitl). It could be bad luck, it could be … a Rorschach test for you to impose your own opinion on why you think this player starts playing differently as the pressure mounts.

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This is where the conversation about jam, competitiveness, and passion come into play. Is it a lack of those things? Is it just wilting under pressure where others excel? Is it that “the best way out is always through,” and three of the four guys above would much prefer to go around? It’s subjective, and it’s purely opinion now, but there’s no doubt that something visibly changes in big moments with Toronto’s most important players.

As they plan for the seasons ahead, this is an inconvenient truth.

Wednesday’s Game 4 of this series is going to be fascinating, because I think we’ll learn a lot about this Core Four and its self-belief. Typically, when things have gone bad for this group in the regular season and they’ve faced some sort of public backlash, they’ve responded by destroying their next opponent, as if to clarify how good they really are. But when those moments have come in past playoffs, they’ve wilted, and rather badly. Do they believe it’s still within in them, in that room?

To me, if they truly believe in their own group, in the face of all skepticism and odds, you’ll get one of those “oh, right” reminder performances, where you see all the things that make this core great. One where they clarify that they are, in fact, capable of controlling even the best opponents. And they might even make people start to believe again. They’re certainly good enough, and Florida as a team has its flaws.

But at this point it’s Toronto’s flaws, and most specifically their core, that are now in public question, whether fair or not. In the business of professional sports, results trump process in the post-season.

These Leafs have one more chance to change the narratives that are growing in volume. They have another night to emphatically reject those opinions. Because if they do go quietly into the night, that muffled tone would instantly become the loudest statement of them all.

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