Why a blockbuster Maple Leafs trade really comes down to two stars

Gord Stellick of Leafs Nation joins Real Kyper and Bourne to discuss what the Toronto Maple Leafs have said since being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, saying that he isn't surprised the players didn't express more frustration.

“The sense is, it’s kind of up in the air.” —Auston Matthews

TORONTO — Everything is up in the air.

Everything is on the table.

Not yet but soon enough: Everything will be happening.

For the first summer since assembling his beloved Core Four — Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and John TavaresToronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is threatening to break up the band.

It’s time.

Maybe Dubas (or his replacement) surveys the trade market, changes his mind, and runs it back. Sure. Maybe the Coyotes stay in Arizona.

But all evidence suggests the fight is over, and it’s time to move on.

Hope eventually taps out to truth.

“In terms of the goal, it remains the same, but perhaps the path needs to shift slightly. It needs to be adapted slightly,” Dubas said in Monday’s emotional postmortem.

“You get in between persistence and full belief versus being a little too staunch and rigid. I think that is a question I would take the time for myself in reflecting on the year and then decide on that heading into the spring toward the draft and free agency.”

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It is one thing to express a willingness to disable the Voltron; it is quite another to pull off the type of franchise-altering blockbuster we’re talking about here.

The 2022 Presidents’ Trophy–winning Florida Panthers dealt franchise-record-holder Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pair defenceman MacKenzie Weegar, both hot off the best seasons of their careers, to the Calgary Flames for Matthew Tkachuk. Now, the Tkachuk-led Panthers are in the final four.

That’s the example of the type of identity-altering deal — established core piece(s) for a young, edgy stud — Dubas said could be explored in the coming weeks.

We’ll throw another one at you.

In June 2016, the steady Nashville Predators had come off their third second-round exit in six years. Good squad. Couldn’t get over the hump.

The Preds traded long-serving captain and perennial Norris-conversation defenceman Shea Weber to Montreal for the younger P.K. Subban — and spring-boarded themselves to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final the next season.

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If you are open to the idea that a star Maple Leafs forward must go, the question quickly becomes: OK, which one?

Or, gulp, two?

Tavares will be 33 when the puck drops on the 2023-24 campaign. Due to his age and cap hit ($11 million), he would be the most desirable move. He would also yield the softest return.

With a full no-move clause and a young growing family, the captain has no intention of walking away from the deal Dubas persuaded him to sign in 2018.

Would Tavares sign up for the trade block?

“I love it here. I made a commitment here for seven years to be a Leaf. I want to be here. That is how I feel,” Tavares said. “I love being captain and take that responsibility very seriously. I feel really fortunate and still think there is a tremendous opportunity here for our team in the near future and in the long run.”

He’s staying put.

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Matthews has one more season on his current contract and a full no-move that gets triggered on July 1, the same day he becomes eligible for an extension.

Dressed in a Maple Leafs hoodie and a Maple Leafs ballcap, the 25-year-old sniper reiterated Monday that he intends to re-sign, preferably before training camp.

Despite Matthews’ post-season drop-off, No. 1 centres of his calibre simply don’t come around. Toronto will do everything in its power to lock him up. Unless Matthews suddenly requests out before Canada Day, he’ll be back.

So, while we may talk about breaking up the Core Four, what we’re really talking about is trading William Nylander and/or Mitch Marner. Both of whom expressed their desire to hang around for at least one more shot.

“Look. I love it here. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is where I want to win, and I want us to give it a go as long as we can,” said Nylander, who will submit a 10-team no-trade list on July 1, in advance of his contract season.

“I have a full year, and obviously I want to stay here, and it would be nice if we could sort that out. But the season just ended, and I’m not really too focused on that. I just want to come back here for next year and be ready to go.”

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Marner has two years remaining on his deal and, like Matthews, a full no-move that will be triggered on July 1.

Essentially, if a big trade is indeed coming, it’ll be easiest to pull off within the next six weeks, before the players can nix it.

“That’s above me. I can’t control any of that. We’ll see what happens,” Marner said. “I’ve been very fortunate to play for this team, and I want to continue to play for this team and hope I get to play with this team. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of as a kid, and to be able to do it now is pretty surreal. So, hopefully I get to continue that honour on and be with this squad.”

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The performance of Selke Trophy finalist Marner (hot off a career-high 99 points) and Nylander (hot of a career-best 40 goals) will make them desirable targets. You’re getting a gifted creator of offence in his prime.

More incentive for prospective acquiring teams: Owners can save money, thanks to Dubas front-loading his stars’ contracts.

Marner only costs $8.025 million in real dollars for each of his final two years. Nylander only $6 million. That matters when swinging deals of this magnitude.

Should Toronto deal one of its elite forwards, it risks becoming a worse regular-season team. (Remember, the Panthers only made the dance by a single point in the standings.)

To be clear, we’re not talking about shipping out talent for prospects and picks.

What must be considered is exchanging an asset like Marner or Nylander for a bona fide top-pair defenceman and/or a different type of top-six forward that can help in the immediate future, be it through a direct deal or freeing up cap space to get more creative in free agency.

With Gabriel Landeskog already ruled out for 2023-24, Colorado is desperate for offence and has a couple of intriguing young defencemen in Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram.

Washington is resetting, and Toronto native Tom Wilson needs a new contract.

The Leafs have always had eyes for Philadelphia’s Travis Konecny and free agent Tyler Bertuzzi, whose grit-per-60 is high.

Calgary’s Elias Lindholm, Arizona’s Nick Schmaltz, and New York’s Filip Chytil would add to Toronto’s centre depth and may allow Tavares a shift to left wing — an idea he is open to.

RFA defencemen Vince Dunn (Kraken), Cam York (Flyers), Jamie Drysdale (Ducks), and K’Andre Miller (Rangers) will be intriguing targets if they struggle to reach agreements with their current clubs.

We’re just spit-balling here, of course.

But the point is, with hard work and creativity, and phone calls, there is a path to be blazed beyond “Run it back!”

And Marner and Nylander have the most cause to be nervous on their summer vacations.

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