It’s Up To The Leafs ‘Core Four’ To Give Their Era The Ending It Deserves

Following the free agent signing of John Tavares in the summer of 2018, Kyle Dubas was asked if it was financially viable to keep together what is now known as the Leafs ‘Core Four’ given the hard salary cap world teams in the NHL operate within. Dubas responded confidently, saying, “We can, and we will.” When Dubas uttered the now-famous words, he wasn’t just referring to being able to sign William Nylander, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Tavares while putting forth a competitive team around them. He also plainly stated to the doubters that he believed the Leafs can, and will, win with four big-money forwards. Since then, the Leafs have won a ton, just not in the playoffs. They are sitting at one playoff series win and a lot of playoff disappointments. Now, they are staring down the barrel at an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Florida Panthers and potentially the end of an era. It may not be fair, and it is probably not even accurate, but if the Leafs’ season ends Wednesday night, everything those four players did in their time as Leafs will be draped in failure. The question now is, how did we get to this point, and what will they do about it?

I am ashamed of the number of times I have rewatched old Leaf playoff series highlights only to see Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander get continuously stonewalled by Carey Price, or Jonas Korpisalo, or Tuukka Rask. This year, Sergei Bobrovsky is the goalie that gets to ruin my life and haunt the ‘core four.’

All the numbers, the analytics, the stats, whatever you want to call them, point to the Leafs’ best players being unlucky against Florida. If you have read my writing before, you’ll know how much value I put into such statistics. The problem is no one cares. None of it matters when you perform as you did in game three. Most (sane) Leaf fans understood that the first two games of the series against Florida were actually good games by the Leafs, but they just got some bad luck. The ‘core four’ was relentless in their pursuit of a goal in both games, coming up with 42 scoring chances between the four of them. In game three, they had just 8, with the majority coming in the third period. It was an unacceptable performance, but it was also disheartening.

It was disheartening not just because they didn’t score but because of how badly they played. For the most part, I haven’t had a problem with how the Leafs’ four best players have played in their playoff failures. I have been frustrated at times, but more often than not, they have just been on the wrong side of the luck and bounces that define playoff hockey.

However, game three against Florida was different. Other than Nylander (who still wasn’t great), the ‘core four’ was downright awful. I do not like when people insinuate that professional athletes play with a lack of effort, so I won’t go down that route. But it seemed that Tavares, Matthews, and especially Marner were either unprepared or missing a spark. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying. It seemed more that they didn’t recognize the game’s magnitude. It’s challenging to analyze because we’ve never seen those three players play so poorly in a playoff game. It could simply be they didn’t have it that night, but when you play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and make $11 million a year, that won’t fly. It felt like Tavares, Matthews, and Marner seemed to try to do much while at the same time not doing nearly enough. Their game three performances embodied the dichotomy between the Leafs’ regular-season successes and playoff failures.

I don’t mean to sound predetermined about a ‘Core Four’ blowup in the event of a sweep, but I find it hard to believe they remain intact. Kyle Dubas should be offered a contract to stay as a general manager no matter what happens, but it would be easy for him to walk out on this team, given how they have let him down year after year. Beyond that, Dubas or whoever replaces him will have to deal with the fact that Matthews and Nylander are in the final year of their contracts and will want significant pay raises. Will they be able to fit both in and stay as balanced as they’d like? Even besides that, there is the notion that trading at least one of the Leafs’ four stars to shake things up may not be a bad idea. Can you really run it back AGAIN after you just got swept by the Florida Panthers?

In saying all of that, it would be an absolute shame to allow four games to define an era of Leaf hockey that should be looked back upon fondly. Since Matthews was drafted in 2016, the Leafs have been one of the most consistent teams in the league. They are one of just two teams to make the playoffs every year since then (Bruins are the other), and other than Matthews’ first year and the COVID-shortened season in 2020, Toronto had always cruised to a playoff spot.

But it will be if the Leafs lose Wednesday. All that regular season success, winning the North Division, Matthews scoring 60 goals and winning MVP, having all four guys reach 80 points in a season, not to mention winning a playoff series! None of it will matter when the postmortems of what this group accomplished are written. They will lump in these Leaf teams with the rest of them, as unfair as that might be. These Leafs will be seen as no different than the team that had Jeff Finger in their top four, no different than the team that had Leo Komarov as their’ All-Star and no different from the team that was like an 18-Wheeler going off a cliff. They would be lumped in as failures just like the rest of them, and it would be bullshit, but people would lap it up.

However, it is up to four people and four people only to do something about it. They have run out of time to fall back on any excuses or any bad luck. Wednesday night is their last chance. If they win? They’ll have a second last chance on Friday and maybe a third on Sunday. And after that? Well, it’s the hockey gods’ hands for game seven. Heck, even if these four guys manage to get it to game seven and lose, from where they are now, it’d be pretty damn hard to criticize them! The Leafs are a better team than the Florida Panthers. Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander can win this series by themselves. It is time for them to take control of their legacies and rewrite the narrative of the ‘core four’ era. Don’t allow everything you guys accomplished to be thrown into the fire. If you do it, you’ll be heroes forever. Maybe I’m asking for too much. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit. But no matter what anyone says, they have earned the right to be believed in.

It is a testament to how much I love these four players that I still have hope that this is not yet over. This cannot be how it ends. I was pissed off Monday, but now I’m ready to witness something special—the cycle of being a Leafs fan. They might not win, but I am damn sure they won’t go down without a fight.

(If nobody got me I know 88 got me).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s