Will the Toronto Maple Leafs Core Four soon be no more?
It likely won’t be long before we know. If the Leafs, freshly eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, plan to move on from Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander or John Tavares before 2023-24, it’s likely to happen in the next five to six weeks.
Why? Because various movement restrictions pop up on their contracts starting July 1.
Matthews is eligible to sign an extension July 1. He has one season remaining at a cap hit of $11.64 million. July 1 will trigger a full no-movement clause for the final season of his current deal.
Marner has two seasons remaining on his contract at $10.90 million, and his full no-movement clause also kicks in July 1.
Nylander has one season left at $6.96 million and is eligible to sign an extension July 1, the same day his modified no-trade clause kicks in, consisting of a 10-team no-trade list.
Captain Tavares has a full no-movement clause and two seasons left at an $11-million cap hit.
The Leafs addressed reporters Monday at Ford Performance Centre for their year-end media availability. Many questions lingered in the air, from the futures of their many pending UFAs to the fates of coach Sheldon Keefe and GM Kyle Dubas. But what happens to the Core Four was as prominent a topic as any.
Tavares was the first to address reporters. He’ll forever be etched in Leafs lore after becoming the fifth player in the franchise’s 105-season history to score a series-winning goal, with his Game 6 overtime tally knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning. But with the action intensifying in Round 2 against the Panthers, Tavares, 32, visibly appeared to have trouble keeping up with the speed. He was held without a goal after scoring four times in the first round.
Because of his hefty AAV and the fact he’s showing signs of decline despite a strong regular season, Tavares is easily the least likely Core Four member to change addresses, and he holds the cards with his NMC anyway. But he did confirm his desire to be part of the solution no matter what happens.
“I love it here,” Tavares said. “I made a commitment to be here for seven years. I want to be here.”
Tavares also acknowledged the idea that, as he ages, he has to be adaptable to a different deployment in the lineup, even if that includes moving from center to the wing.
“I’m open to whatever,” he said. “I want to continue to evolve my game and find ways to get better. I think guys that play a long time, that’s what they’re able to do. They adapt their game still taking their strengths…I take a lot of pride in being versatile, and when I signed here I knew, as I get later in my contract, and as I get older, those possibilities were there.”
Matthews spoke next, and it didn’t take long to tackle the inevitable questions about his extension. Given he’s tied with Connor McDavid over the past three seasons for the most goals in the NHL, there’s a strong chance Matthews’ next deal will jump him above McDavid’s $12.5 million AAV and Nathan MacKinnon’s $12.6 million AAV to become the NHL’s highest-paid player. And while Matthews maintained something close to a poker face about the extension when speaking Monday, he did express a desire to be a Leaf for the foreseeable future.
“Of course – my intention is to be here,” Matthews said. “I think I’ve (reiterated) that before, how much I enjoy playing here and how much it means to me…It’s a true honor.”
Aside from a major lift Matthews gave the team during its rally from a 4-1 third-period deficit in Game 4 against the Lightning, he had a quiet postseason on the scoresheet relative to expectations and didn’t find the net once in five games against Florida. Matthews, whose greatest weapon is his electric wrist shot, battled a hand injury during the regular season and hinted Monday at being affected by a malady during the playoffs, though he didn’t specifically mention a body part.
“It was something I was dealing with a little bit throughout the season and throughout the playoffs, but you’ve got to push through that and try to do what I can to help the team win,” Matthews said.
More to come as the other members of Toronto’s Core Four speak Monday.
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