The Toronto Maple Leafs held their end-of-season media session today, giving reporters a chance to ask players and management the burning questions that have been on the minds of fans since the team was eliminated from the playoffs on Friday.
The Leafs were defeated by the Florida Panthers in Game 5 of their best-of-seven second-round NHL playoff series, which they lost four games to one, despite being favoured to win and holding home-ice-advantage.
Although they finally got out of the first round for the first time since 2004, the Leafs once again bowed out of the playoffs in disappointing and frustrating fashion, leaving the future of this current team in question.
“[It’s] disappointing to be here,” General Manager Kyle Dubas said in his opening remarks at Monday’s press conference.
“[I] feel that the group had a substantial opportunity to continue on this spring and unfortunately, we did not execute to the level that we would all like. It’s another hard lesson for all of us; the entire organization.”
The feeling of disappointment was evident across the board, and for many of the players, it’s a feeling they’ve become accustomed to.
“It’s not where you want to be,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly; the team’s longest tenured player.
“You spend time thinking about things and processing things. It’s a feeling that’s all too familiar but every year feels a little bit different.”
Prior to this year, the Leafs had been one win away from advancing in the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, but were unable to get over the hump.
Despite finally doing so this year, Leafs management find themselves back at square one, with questions swirling about whether or not the team’s core group of players has what it takes to win at the highest level.
Dubas has so far resisted the urge to break up the so-called “core four” of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, team captain John Tavares and William Nylander, but hinted today that he’s open to doing anything that will improve the team ahead of next season.
“This spring and summer through to next October, I'm interested in doing anything, after a very thorough evaluation… with our group here that would allow us a better chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Dubas said.
“So I would take nothing off the table at all, and I think everything would have to be considered.”
One of Dubas’ most important decisions will be whether or not to extend Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season as league MVP after scoring 60 goals, but was unable to find the back of the net at all during the Leafs’ second-round series against the Panthers.
He’ll become a free agent at the end of next season, but indicated today that he’d like to stay in Toronto long term.
“My intention is to be here,” Matthews said, adding that signing a contract extension is something he hopes can be finalized before the start of next season.
“I think it’s important and it’ll all work itself out in due time and [I’ll] just kind of go from there. But as far as everything else goes, like I’ve said before, I really do enjoy playing here. It’s a true honour.”
Nylander, who had a breakout season for the Leafs this year, will also become a free agent in 2024, and retaining both him and Matthews won’t be cheap. But he also said he hopes he can stay in Toronto and continue competing with this core group.
“I love it here,” Nylander said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else and this is where I want to win. I want us to give it a go as long as we can.”
DUBAS’ CONTRACT, KEEFE’S FUTURE
Big off season moves may not just be coming to the roster, but also to the coaching staff and the front office itself.
Head Coach Sheldon Keefe has led the team to a string of successful regular seasons, and in getting past the first round, did what no Leafs coach has done since Pat Quinn, but his future with the team is still up in the air.
Dubas, who hired Keefe in 2019, said he thought the coaching staff made good adjustments during the playoffs, but added that there needs to be a “full evaluation” before a decision is made about whether or not Keefe will get an extension of his own.
But the team’s most pressing off season decision will be about Dubas himself. His contract expired at the end of this season, and it’s unclear whether or not he will be back.
The decision remains in the hands of Leafs ownership and team president Brendan Shanahan, but Dubas said today that he’s still deciding whether or not he even wants to return.
“[I’ve] had a good, long relationship here with [Shanahan] and the owners. I’ll speak to them in the coming days,” he said.
“But probably more importantly, [I’ll] speak to my wife and our family tonight and tomorrow and see where we’re at as a family and how we want to proceed with everything.
Dubas says the past year has been a difficult one for his family, and won’t make a decision about his future until he’s spoken with them.
“I’ve just been learning these past couple days, it’s been a very taxing year on them and that’s obviously very important to me so we’ll go through all that and we’ll all make our decisions and go from there.”
Dubas added that if he doesn’t come back, it will be to take some time off, and he won’t join any other franchise.
“I definitely don't have it in me to go anywhere else,” he said.
“So it'll either be here or it'll be taking time to recalibrate and reflect.”