Report: Leafs feel focus on 'Core Four' hindered growth of team

People within the organization reportedly feel they haven't done a good enough job forming a team identity.

It’s been a summer full of introspection and soul searching for the Toronto Maple Leafs after crashing out of the second round in five games.

Toronto overhauled its front office by parting ways with general manager Kyle Dubas and replacing him with ex-Flames GM Brad Treliving, and there may be some more introspection surrounding the team’s core four forwards, consisting of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on his 32 Thoughts podcast that the framing of the Maple Leafs as the "Core Four" plus 19 other guys affected the team’s approach to team-building and identity.

So much of the discourse around the Leafs is taken up by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)
So much of the discourse around the Leafs is taken up by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)

“I had a very interesting phone call about all of this stuff. They said to me that one of the things that came out of this season was that Toronto wanted to deemphasize the Core Four,” Friedman said.

“Not that the organization feels anything negative toward those players but I think there was a feeling amongst the entire group, other players on the team, some of the coaching staff, the front office and the organization that there’s too much about them. Too much about the Core Four and I don’t know what you call them, the other 19?”

Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander accounted for 49% of the Maple Leafs’ salary cap and since signing Tavares to a seven-year deal worth $11 million annually on Canada Day 2018, the team was always structured around the strength of the four forwards, plus defenseman Morgan Rielly, while looking to fill the remainder of the roster with ancillary depth skaters and young players on entry-level contracts. This core has consistently been among the best regular-season teams in the NHL, only to routinely perform below expectations in the postseason.

“They felt it interfered in the growth of the team,” Friedman added. “One of the things I heard that I talked about was if you take a look at the third and fourth line over the last few years, there’s been a lot of turnover. And what someone indicated to me was, the feeling was that they haven’t done a good enough job of creating an identity for the other players on the roster. I want to stress, I don’t think this is about jealousy. I think what it’s about is if you’re going to win, you’re going to win with 23, not four plus 19.

“I want people to be careful with this not to rip the four guys because I don’t think it’s that. They have to get away from that and I think some of the depth players talked about this is that they feel it gets in the way of forming a team identity. Some of that, you’re not going to get away from because in the media we’re going to talk about the Core Four so you can’t escape it but can you do a better job of creating an identity around some of the other players on the roster?”

Toronto went all-in at the trade deadline, adding Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn, Sam Lafferty and Erik Gustafsson in order to bolster the team’s chances of making an extended playoff run with a genuine shot at the Cup. Although Toronto boasted more depth than any point of the Matthews-Marner era, that's a significant amount of roster churn a month out from the playoffs.

Friedman reported there wasn’t any jealousy surrounding Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander and made it clear that his source wasn’t attacking any of them personally, rather that the stars versus role players dynamic took a toll on the Maple Leafs internally.

“Leafs fans who watch them closely, there were some of them driven crazy that (head coach Sheldon) Keefe would use the (David) Kampf line in offensive zone draws in the playoffs. And I actually thought that was about him trying to do that, create a fourth line that had some identity to it," he said. "Overall, I’ve heard they’re committed to less oxygen on the Core Four and more about building the team around them.

"And like I said, the person said to me, there wasn’t anything about them being bad guys necessarily, but there’s so much talk in that market about it, internally it’s affected how they talk about them and you can’t be four plus 19, you have to be a full 23.”

Does this portend a massive trade in the future? In all likelihood, probably not. Tavares and Marner both have two years left on their contracts with no-movement clauses and both players have been on the national map since emerging as prodigies in the Ontario Hockey League with no interest in leaving their boyhood team.

Matthews is one of the best players in the world and Treliving told reporters that his top priority is signing the former Hart Trophy winner to an extension. Matthews has a full no-movement clause that will activate on July 1. Nylander is in the final year of his contract and is eligible for an extension imminently, with his 10-team no-movement clause kicking in on July 1. Nylander's deal is a steal at this point and he has stated his desire to remain with the Maple Leafs.

It’ll be compelling to see how the Maple Leafs block out the noise, especially if they run it back with the Core Four. For now, it seems clear the Maple Leafs want to focus on strengthening the totality of the team, even if their cap sheet makes that challenging.