Can the Maple Leafs forge a path forward with their current core?

It's clear that changes are needed for the Maple Leafs, but how much flexibility does the team actually have?

The Toronto Maple Leafs changed up their narrative slightly by finally winning a playoff round this season, but with another season ending in disappointment, major change looks to be on the way.

What form that change takes is up in the air, but if you talk to a Maple Leafs fan right now, there's an insatiable appetite for breaking up the forward quartet of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, also known as the Core Four.

Considering the group's underperformance in a number of playoff runs, that sentiment is understandable. If you're going to allocate approximately 50% of your salary cap to just four players, they need to perform at an extremely high level to justify that investment.

On the other hand, it's easy to pull the trigger on something regrettable in an emotional moment. There is no doubt that Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nylander are good players. Making a move for the sake of making a move could come back to hurt the Maple Leafs.

To really examine the way forward, Toronto needs to answer two questions. The first is whether moving any of them genuinely helps the team improve. The second is whether there's a path to keep them and build a winner, where the team has failed to do so in the past.

Can you improve by trading any of the Core Four?

The best way to conceptualize this question is to simply go player by player.

With Matthews, it's pretty easy. You can count the players in the NHL better than the centre on one hand, and you're not getting one of them in a trade. If Toronto moves its franchise centre, the team will get worse — especially with Tavares ill-equipped to serve as a top centre as he gets deeper into his thirties.

The only justification for trading Matthews is an absolute certainty that he will not re-sign after his contract expires at the end of the 2023-24 season. If that's the case, biting the bullet and getting a substantial trade return makes sense, even if it forces the team to take a step back.

However, should Matthews have any inclination to remain, the Maple Leafs would be extremely foolish not to give him the opportunity to do so.

Tavares' case is also simple in the sense that his contract has a no-movement clause.

His price tag also exceeds his on-ice value at this point, so it's hard to envision a team being so enamoured with the idea of bringing him aboard that they convince Toronto's captain to waive it. Without the NMC, there might be a market for Tavares with the Maple Leafs retaining half his salary, but there's no indication that he wants to go anywhere.

Marner is an interesting case because his contract is big enough that it's tough to move, but his production is compelling enough that another team might be motivated to make a play for him. Forwards who produce close to 100 points per season and earn Selke Trophy consideration don't grow on trees.

A team interested in Marner would have to need an offensive boost and be close enough to contending that they feel Marner could put them over the top. There were five teams that produced 100 points during the regular season without a top-10 offence who might fit the bill.

That list includes the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, Vegas Golden Knights, Carolina Hurricanes, and Minnesota Wild.

No potential trade jumps off the page with these squads — and any return would likely be a combination of veterans on significant contracts and some futures.

While armchair GMs have been trying to trade one of Toronto's forwards to Carolina for defensive help forever, the Hurricanes are in the midst of a strong playoff run that's unlikely to have them looking for a shakeup.

A Marner deal might spread out Toronto's talent a little more evenly, but it's hard to imagine it improving the Maple Leafs in the short term or the long term unless the team hits a home run with a prospect or draft pick.

Nylander would be by far the easiest player to move of the four. With a cap hit just under $7 million, he has a contract with positive trade value and he'd fit on the first line for plenty of teams around the league — including contenders. The Swede is a walking zone entry capable of injecting life into teams in need of speed and puck carrying. His 74 goals since the beginning of the 2021-22 season rank 18th in the NHL.

A Nylander trade would likely involve less veteran flotsam returning to the Maple Leafs than a Marner deal, and could involve some quality futures. You'd still probably be downgrading your team, and a cap-strapped squad like the Maple Leafs probably shouldn't be dying to move a player who provides surplus value relative to his salary.

The 27-year-old is probably the least guilty of failing to show up for the playoffs, too, as his postseason production is almost identical to his regular season numbers.

In almost any trade scenario with these players, the Maple Leafs would be getting worse as an immediate-term on-ice product. The situation where it makes most sense to make deals would be one where Matthews indicates that he has no interest in returning and he goes, along with Marner and Nylander, as part of a massive rebuild.

A retool that includes just one player moving doesn't seem likely to do much more than satisfy calls for change at any cost.

It's clear that changes are needed for the Maple Leafs, but how much flexibility does the team actually have? (Getty Images)
It's clear that changes are needed for the Maple Leafs, but how much flexibility does the team actually have? (Getty Images)

Can you build around the Core Four?

Staying the course would be difficult for this fanbase to stomach, considering the slew of disappointments in recent seasons. It's also fair to say that building another version of this team as good as the 2022-23 edition with those four on board is nearly impossible.

Toronto stands to lose Ryan O'Reilly, Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, Luke Schenn, and Justin Holl in unrestricted free agency. Ilya Samsonov is a restricted free agent who's earned another contract.

Your mileage may vary on the value of those players, but that's a lot of holes to plug. The Maple Leafs currently project to have approximately $6.6 million in cap space, which simply isn't enough to do much to bolster its roster in free agency.

Building around Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, and Marner in free agency would mean another summer of bargain shopping. The only cheap, young, player in the organization who looks ready to step up into a prominent role is Matthew Knies. Maybe he backfills Bunting's role for less than $1 million, but that still leaves Toronto with plenty of work to do.

To run it back with this group, you would have to believe the Maple Leafs' top-four forwards have more to offer than they've shown thus far. That argument, however, is getting harder and harder to make.

Where does that leave the Maple Leafs?

It leaves them between a rock and a hard place. Trading stars is unlikely to improve Toronto in 2023-24. Keeping them is the promise of a lesser version of what we've already seen.

That lesser version could get a few more bounces and better goaltending in the playoffs — or simply catch fire — but that's a tough outcome to bank on. Patience in the face of repeated disappointment famously worked for the Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin, but those Caps squads had more postseason success before breaking through.

If you truly believe this core doesn't have what it takes, or simply doesn't work together, perhaps a lateral move is acceptable. But it should be undertaken with the understanding that it'd be unfair to expect superior results without superior talent — and a talent upgrade will be almost impossible to find.

Moving one player won't give Toronto a total reset. It's also unlikely to give them a ton of the cap flexibility they need as any team receiving of one the Maple Leafs' stars is likely to move some salary back in return.

Deciding this era of the team is over would be a rational conclusion based on the team's inability to achieve meaningful playoff success. Bringing everyone back doesn't seem like an option that's either rational or satisfying to the lizard brain.

At the same time, the chances that different means better aren't as high as many fans fatigued with this version of the Maple Leafs would like to believe. Toronto's hand is likely forced, and the same fanbase that chanted 'We want Florida' may be on the verge of learning to be careful what it wishes for all over again.