Leafs core's desire to run it back makes potential shakeup even harder
If Toronto is going to make profound changes this offseason, they'll be doing so against the wishes of a team that wants to stay — and win — together.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs' leadership group was planning on making sweeping changes after another playoff disappointment, their job got a little harder after the team's season-closing debrief with the media on Monday.
To be clear, if the team wants to let GM Kyle Dubas walk or ship out someone in the Core Four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander — it will still do just that. Shaking up the foundation of the franchise is justifiable given the consistent lack of postseason success.
That said, if MLSE is hoping to put this squad in the blender, it's doing so in a PR landscape that moved ever so slightly yesterday.
Dubas was the fulcrum of that shift.
He entered the day as someone who appeared to be a likely candidate for a front office job with the Pittsburgh Penguins, or another NHL franchise. At the very least, he could have presented himself as someone with a difficult decision to make in the offseason, paving the way for an amicable split.
Instead, the executive made it clear he either wanted to stay in Toronto or take time away from the NHL. That means if MLSE wants Dubas gone, that will almost certainly be framed as their choice unless Dubas goes out of his way to say he needs time off.
The GM has a mixed track record and plenty of detractors, but dropping someone who is well-regarded enough to get offers around the league that only wants to work for you isn't the easiest look from a PR perspective.
While nothing the players said was as surprising as Dubas' declaration, they similarly did not give the team's decisions makers an easy way out of Toronto's current predicament.
It's not hard to imagine Matthews giving noncommittal answers about his contract situation, leading to speculation that he wanted to be elsewhere. If the Maple Leafs believed he didn't intend to re-sign, the most radical version of a re-tool for this team — trading Matthews prior to July 1 — would've come into play.
That was never the most likely scenario, but it was on the table. Matthews took it off by expressing a clear desire to remain in Toronto.
"My intention is to be here," Matthews said. "I think I've reciprocated that before, how much I enjoy playing here and what it means to me, the organization, my teammates and how much I just enjoy being here."
"I really do enjoy playing here, it’s a true honour," Matthews added. "The work that we're putting in to continue to strive for that end result is extremely motivating."
Similarly, Tavares was unambiguous in his desire to stay with the team by keeping his non-movement clause in place.
"I love it here. Obviously I made a commitment here for seven years to be a Leaf and I want to be here. That's how I feel. I love being captain and take that responsibility very seriously and feel really fortunate and still feel there's a tremendous opportunity for our team here in the near future and in the long run," Tavares said.
Nylander also made his preference for remaining with the Maple Leafs impossible to misinterpret.
"I love it here," he said. "I don’t want to be anywhere else and this is where I want to win."
Marner's hope to keep suiting up for his hometown team has rarely been in doubt, but he was happy to reiterate it on Monday.
"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 for this team," he said. "It’s all I dreamed of as a kid and to be able to do that now, it’s pretty surreal."
Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise to hear these players espouse optimism and their desire to remain with the Maple Leafs publicly. That's the path of least resistance for avoiding unwanted headlines. If they want to leave later, they can find ways to spin the situation that won't make their comments on Monday sound hypocritical or false — likely by framing any departure as a necessary business decision.
That said, if ownership was hoping to blow anything up, it didn't get any messaging ammunition.
There's no way to present Dubas as leaving for a different opportunity or the core wavering in their desire to stay with Toronto. You can add Sheldon Keefe to that list, although firing the coach would be a smaller move — and one that's widely accepted as a method of tweaking a team's direction without altering its big-picture situation.
No player showed notable frustration with the team's inability to make a deep playoff run together or even hinted at the idea that this wasn't the group or philosophy to carry forward — something in the vein of Fred VanVleet making headlines among Toronto Raptors fans by suggesting the team needed a new identity.
If MLSE wants a new GM or to ship out a core forward, there will be no positioning it as the right move for all parties. Instead, it will be a rejection of this team's united message that they love being Toronto Maple Leafs and believe in the club's future.