Ranking which of the "core four" Leafs forwards are most likely to be traded

May 8 2023, 6:25 pm

If the Toronto Maple Leafs had thought that this postseason would actually feel any different in the end than most years, it sure doesn’t have that sense right now.

They finally broke down the door and won their first playoff series last weekend in impressive fashion, topping the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games to move on to the second round of the NHL postseason.

And yet, an inferior-on-paper-but-still-talented Florida Panthers team has them down 3-0 in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and they’ve simply delayed the annual referendum on the franchise by a few weeks.

Much of the discourse around how the Leafs carry out their future centres around the “core four” forward contingent: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and — the captain that completes the group — John Tavares.

Toronto still has the improbable road in front of them of winning four games in a row and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

And with the four forwards scoring exactly zero goals through three games against the Panthers, the stakes have never really been higher for someone — anyone — to simply put the puck in the back of the net.

One more loss means it’s offseason time, and the first question that comes to mind with this roster is: Would they consider trading any of the core four this summer?

How have the core four performed against the class of the NHL?

Before we get into each individual player, it’s important to assess the core as a whole for their performance in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Toronto drafted Nylander in 2014, Marner in 2015, and Matthews in 2016, before Tavares joined the fold in 2018 as arguably the most impactful free agent signing in franchise history.

Since Tavares joined the Leafs, he and his teammates have been, well, performing about as they should’ve over that stretch — in the regular season, at least.

Since 2018-19, Toronto is fifth in the cumulative NHL regular season standings, and third in goals scored. (Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins are 1-2 on that win list, and the Leafs’ current nemesis in Florida are in seventh.)

They’ve finished third in the Atlantic Division twice, second twice, and won the all-Canadian North division back in the pandemic-shortened 2020-2021 season. They’ve finished in the top seven of the league standings four of the five years that Tavares has been on the team, and they’ve put up some pretty impressive individual numbers to boot.

Over the last five seasons, Marner sits fifth league-wide in points (424), Matthews seventh (410), Tavares 24th (354), and Nylander 40th (295). (By points per game, they ranked seventh, eighth, 31st, and 44th, in the same order over that same time span.) With 32 teams league-wide, the Leafs having four of the 40 or so best offensive players in the league will always be a positive rather than a drawback.

In the playoffs, that production has dried up a little bit. Since the 2019 playoffs, the Leafs’ top four forwards rank ninth (Matthews), 25th (Marner), 32nd (Nylander), and 59th (Tavares) in point-per-game production in the playoffs.

It’s still all in the top 15 percentile league-wide, but it’s a little easier to see why teams have gotten the edge over Toronto more often than not.

So who would the Leafs be most likely to trade?

1. William Nylander

2022-23 stats: 82 GP, 40 G, 47 A, 87 PTS

Contract: $6.96 million AAV, UFA 2024

Nylander is an extremely attractive trade chip for just about any team in the league, and the easiest player financially for any other team to acquire.

But what would Toronto want out of the deal?

Another star forward? Florida getting Matthew Tkachuk from Calgary for Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar gives a recent example of a situation where that’s worked out well for a team.

But those types of deals are few and far between — there’s a reason why we call them blockbusters.

Simply trading Nylander for defensive help wouldn’t make much sense either. The Leafs finished seventh leaguewide in goals allowed this past summer, despite injuries decimating their goaltending corps throughout the year. Toronto’s back end isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to imagine finding a player that would raise the ceiling much more than their current group in exchange for Nylander.

Perhaps there’s a true No. 1 goaltender available, but surely Toronto would prioritize other assets ahead of Nylander in the race to acquire such a talent.

Could Toronto trade Nylander? Pretty easily. Will they? It’s hard to imagine, which makes trading any of his star teammates even tougher to fathom.

2. Mitch Marner

2022-23 stats: 80 GP, 30 G, 69 A, 99 PTS

Contract: $10.96 million AAV, UFA 2025

Mitch Marner remains Toronto’s leading scorer since his NHL debut in 2016 and sits 10th leaguewide on the points leaderboard over the past seven seasons.

In the regular season, he’s done everything expected of him and more since the team drafted him, and he’s been paid pretty handsomely, to boot.

In 48 career playoff games, Marner has 45 career playoff points by way of nine goals and 36 assists, and is, again, Toronto’s leading scorer over that time span.

He’s had some playoff stinkers for sure (no goals in 2020 or 2021 come to mind), but he’s still managed a near point-per-game rate over the course of his career in Toronto come postseason time.

His no-movement clause kicks in after July 1, meaning Marner could simply turn down any trade.

3. John Tavares

2022-23 stats: 80 GP, 36 G, 44 A, 80 PTS

Contract: $11 million AAV, UFA 2025

By nature of his full no-movement clause, John Tavares, like Marner, has the ability to veto any trade.

And then, of course, they’d have to find a suitable trading partner for his contract, with him due $11 million per season over the next two years.

Toronto could retain part of Tavares’ salary, but to what end, exactly? He’s put up a 0.95 points per game mark or better in 10 of his last 12 NHL seasons, and remains a beacon of consistency.

Losing Tavares would create a major void in the middle of Toronto’s lineup, and while it might work in a video game, trading Toronto’s captain seems almost entirely out of the question in the real world.

4. Auston Matthews

2022-23 stats: 74 GP, 40 G, 45 A, 85 PTS

Contract: $11.6 million AAV, UFA 2024

Unless the situation has gotten so dire and your team is in need of a complete restructure, you don’t trade a league MVP and a two-time winner of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy. You just don’t.

Auston Matthews is the most unique talent the Leafs have probably ever had, and despite a “down” year, still ended up finishing with 40 goals in just 74 games this past season.

No player has scored more than Matthews’ 299 goals since he came into the league, and Toronto will be backing the Brink’s truck up to offer him a contract extension as soon as they can.

Unless the Leafs are able to swing a trade for Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, or Nathan MacKinnon, there’s hardly an NHL star in his prime capable of doing the kinds of things Matthews can.

So… no trades for the Leafs?

The Leafs have some tough financial hurdles to manage over this offseason (whenever it comes) and the next one, but it doesn’t seem like a trade — just for trade’s sake — brings this team any closer to their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.

It’s easy to make the case for Toronto trading any of the four most prolific forwards, but it’s much harder to do so in a situation where it actually makes the team better.

Perhaps one, two, or even three of the core four forwards ends up leaving Toronto for a different market one day, but going through each player one by one, it doesn’t seem like a franchise-altering trade is actually on the horizon anytime soon.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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