Why a make-or-break season for the Maple Leafs begins now

Despite all of the regular-season success for Auston Matthews and the Leafs, the club has yet to get past the second round since 2002. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a state of turmoil. Or at least, one of turnover.

It's been a few weeks since another promising Leafs' season petered out in an utterly disappointing first-round Stanley Cup playoff series loss to the Boston Bruins -- marking the seventh time in eight seasons Toronto has failed to advance past the first round in the postseason.

Granted, the Leafs rallied against the Bruins from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7. But Toronto's overtime loss was a failure without justification, which can't be ignored or swept under the rug. It has to induce some degree of change.

Toronto's management group -- president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Brad Treliving and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Keith Pelley -- spoke after the Leafs' defeat with pointed public comments about how "everything was on the table" to get Toronto past its perennial playoff woes.

The first domino to fall was -- predictably -- head coach Sheldon Keefe, fired from his post on May 9 and replaced by Craig Berube on May 23.

That swap is just the beginning of what could -- and should -- be a transformative offseason for the Leafs. There's more the club needs to address to avoid finding itself in a similar position this time next year.

ESPN had discussions with sources inside and outside the organization as a summer of change has already started. Here are the different angles in play for the Leafs.


Mitch Marner is about to enter the final year of his contract. Ditto for John Tavares. That's two members of Toronto's so-called "core four" facing foggy futures. There is a full no-movement clause attached for both players in the coming season, so the Leafs aren't at liberty to orchestrate any trades.

However, a no-movement clause doesn't preclude Treliving from asking around about the possibility of moving either player. Due diligence is part of a GM's process, and Treliving can present Marner and Tavares with any scenarios that arise -- and potentially pique their interest in allowing a trade.

Alternatively, Toronto could offer contract extensions to one or both skaters, removing some of that looming unpredictability.

The latter option doesn't appear likely.

Marner's status in particular has been hotly debated. While the Leafs crashed and burned in the playoffs (again), Marner was practically nowhere to be found on the scoresheet. After putting up 26 goals and 85 points in 69 regular-season games, Toronto's top winger added just one goal and three points in seven postseason tilts. It was a frustrating finish for Marner and the Leafs to not see his best game at the most critical time of the season -- especially in a series where Toronto was getting shut down on a nightly basis by Boston's Jeremy Swayman.

The noise surrounding Marner's next chapter might not have gotten so loud if he had excelled in the postseason. His struggles might have also lessened appetites on both sides to begin extension talks when that window opens on July 1. In fact, it might behoove Marner to wait and see how the season begins -- particularly with a new coach calling the shots -- and then decide whether to re-up with the Leafs or explore free agency a year from now.

Marner is 27 years old. This is the prime of his career when his earning potential is at its highest. Toronto has already heavily invested in two other core pieces -- Auston Matthews at $13.25 million per season and William Nylander at $11.5 million -- and Marner seeking an equivocal payday (not to mention a raise from his current $10.9 million salary) may be too much for Toronto. And don't expect Marner to take a discount just because he's a Toronto-area native.

Tavares, on the other hand, could be more willing to accept less in order to stay. Toronto's captain has continued to produce steadily -- he scored 29 goals and 65 points in 80 games this season -- and provides leadership in the Leafs' dressing room. Tavares will be 34 when next season starts; any new contract will reflect that in both length and dollars.

Suffice to say, Toronto has questions to answer about two of its most important players. Having Marner and Tavares playing out these final seasons could be an unnecessary and potentially costly distraction if not properly managed. Toronto went through a similar situation with Nylander before he signed a seven-year extension in January. Marner's situation will draw daily attention until there's a resolution.

It won't just be Marner fielding inquiries, either. His teammates will be peppered repeatedly about the negotiations, too. How Toronto balances those internal and external pressures will play a role in how the Leafs' show up through the first half of their season (and maybe beyond).

The numbers behind Sheldon Keefe's firing from Toronto

With Sheldon Keefe out in Toronto, check out some numbers behind the Maple Leafs' decades of playoff futility.

TRELIVING HAD SPECIFIC thoughts about who should succeed Keefe as Toronto's next head coach.

The Leafs' GM said he interviewed nine candidates for the position before zeroing in on Berube. The 58-year-old's history checked all Toronto's boxes:

  • Berube's bruising NHL career spanned more than 1,000 games (including 40 for the Leafs in 1991-92).

  • He had racked up head-coaching experience in Philadelphia (2013-15) and St. Louis (2019-23).

  • He was the Blues' interim bench boss when he guided the franchise to its first Stanley Cup victory in 2019. That earned Berube the Blues' full-time gig -- and considerable respect around the league.

While researching candidates, Treliving encountered the same refrain from players willing to "go through a wall" for Berube. The extra endorsement helped persuade Treliving to make the marriage official.

Berube being a beloved player's coach works into Treliving's other motivation for Toronto moving forward: that it becomes a more well-rounded team. Focus in recent years has been trained mostly on the Leafs' highly paid core skaters. Treliving wants everyone in the Leafs' lineup to feel important, impactful and necessary to team success.

Toronto's new coach has a methodology supporting that goal. At Berube's introductory news conference, he explained a no-nonsense approach hinging on the Leafs never getting outworked. Achieving that comes only if the entire mix of top-flight talents and fourth-line grinders pull on the same proverbial rope.

When Keefe came on board in 2019 to replace Mike Babcock, he was determined to let players do what they do best. Keefe's aim was to support the Leafs' creativity on the ice, but the strategy produced an excess of too-cute fluff, from ineffective dropbacks to prioritizing east-west movement over north-south.

That's where Berube's team will differ from Keefe's -- in theory. Berube's philosophy centers on a more hard-nosed game, digging pucks out of corners, winning battles and earning ice time through being accountable on every shift.

It's predictable hockey, where every skater has a role and how to execute. That's Berube's ideology. It's in lockstep with how Treliving would view a revitalized Leafs group.

The only question is: Can Berube pull that out of Toronto's current group?

Berube already made adjustments to Leafs' coaching personnel, bringing on former New York Islanders bench boss Lane Lambert and letting go of Dean Chynoweth. Manny Malhotra is also gone. Toronto will be surrounded by fresh voices with new ideas. Where will it all lead?

Treliving touted Berube's "presence," calling it something a coach either has or doesn't have. How that carries over into the Leafs' dressing room could determine what level of buy-in Berube gets from inside it. Berube will be blunt and straightforward with players and staff. He will prioritize sound defense over flashy offense. And Berube won't let Toronto's stars single-handedly drive the bus.

Berube is what the Leafs need to do a near-complete 180 turn from the team that left Boston, tail between its legs, in another early-May exit. But only if his new paradigm goes according to plan.

IN THE MEDIA they called it a "Shanaplan." The term's namesake never cared for that moniker.

The Leafs have been built in Shanahan's image. He has been the architect of this Toronto team since stepping into the role of president and alternate governor in April 2014. At least one season under Shanahan's reign (the 2015-16 campaign) was purposefully terrible: Toronto's focus was winning the draft lottery and selecting Matthews. Mission accomplished.

But in a decade with Shanahan, the Leafs have churned through five coaches and four general managers while investing more than half their salary cap in four skaters; that in turn severely limited adding options around them. Toronto responded to that mandate with exactly one playoff series win -- and seven series losses.

Now, the Leafs have earned plenty of regular-season success. Toronto notched consecutive 50-plus win showings from 2021 to 2023 and passed the 100-point mark in each of the past three campaigns. It just hasn't led to anything greater. The Leafs are in exactly the same spot they were when Shanahan took over -- and that's on the outside looking in at the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Those same Leafs who look unstoppable in the regular season are laughably beatable in the playoffs. It's an awkward disparity for which the team can never adequately account.

There was no confirmation from Shanahan on his contract status at season's end, but it's believed he's in the final year of a deal signed back in 2019. Pelley -- who was named MLSE's new CEO in April -- has put his weight behind Shanahan and Treliving. For now, anyway.

When Shanahan said in May that Toronto would explore all options to improve the team, it was a blanket statement without specifics. Was that because Shanahan doesn't have any? Or wasn't willing to share?

All eyes are on Toronto's top executive to see what he does next -- knowing the decision will impact not only the Leafs' on-ice future but Shanahan's, too. He hasn't shied away from tough choices in the past, from promoting Kyle Dubas over Lou Lamoriello in 2017 to not extending Dubas last year and hiring Treliving instead. Shanahan's jockeying hasn't moved the needle enough to make Toronto a clear-cut contender. That's what has to change, in what might be a now-or-never summer.

LET'S ASSUME THAT Marner and Tavares will be Leafs in 2024-25.

So, how will Toronto improve around its identical core?

The Leafs' defense is lacking in experience, with holes to fill. The depth chart is headlined by Morgan Rielly, and he deserves a top-tier partner. Toronto remaking its back end is a clear priority heading into free agency. The Leafs have a slew of upcoming UFA blueliners, including Joel Edmundson, Ilya Lyubushkin and John Klingberg -- all players Treliving acquired since taking over.

The Leafs will also have interest in players entering free agency, such as Carolina's Brett Pesce and Dallas' Chris Tanev. Toronto projects to have over $18 million in cap space to work with for the coming season, and that should help fund a blue-line makeover.

Treliving will also have a choice to make on restricted free agent Timothy Liljegren. The Leafs' first-round pick in 2017 has had an inconsistent career in Toronto but could be valuable in trade talks. Same for restricted free agent forward Nick Robertson. Treliving will assess the Leafs' entire roster through the lens of Berube's structure; who fits, and who doesn't? All of that will take shape through the Leafs' offseason process.

Some easy wins for Treliving, though, would be re-signing free agents Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi. Toronto has skill and speed to spare, but not with the grit Domi and Bertuzzi can bring to the lineup. Plus, they've both been in Toronto and want to return. That's no small thing for the Leafs, who have watched players such as Ryan O'Reilly walk away to other teams after spending even a short time in Toronto.

Then there's the oft-discussed possibility of the Leafs luring local product Steven Stamkos back home. The Tampa Bay Lightning captain -- and Toronto native -- is still a threat on the ice, but cap constraints might preclude him from being part of the Lightning's future. If Stamkos were finally interested in a homecoming, then Treliving would be wise to explore a partnership.

After all, the Leafs can't just run it back as before. They need outside help to improve, and that's only going to come through additions matching synergistically with the talent Toronto already has and the system Berube is going to implement. Treliving's task is to give Berube the right ingredients so the Leafs' recipe won't collapse in the playoffs -- again.

THE LEAFS DIDN'T NEED another gut punch in the Boston series. They got one anyway.

In the hours leading up to warmups for Game 7, news leaked that Joseph Woll was unavailable because of injury. The Leafs were going back to Ilya Samsonov in the do-or-die showdown.

Why was this so cringe-worthy? Because it was Samsonov who'd backstopped Toronto into its initial 3-1 series hole, and Woll who dug them out of it by recording sensational back-to-back wins in Games 5 and 6. Woll sprained his back making a save in the dying seconds of that Game 6 victory. And that ultimately proved to be a back-breaker for the Leafs.

Samsonov got Toronto to overtime in Game 7, but Bruins' forward David Pastrnak made it look all too easy beating the Russian netminder with the series-winning tally. That might be the last goal Samsonov ever allows for the Leafs. He's about to become a UFA, and given the up-and-down season Samsonov just had -- he was placed on waivers and briefly demoted to the American Hockey League after a difficult start to the season -- it's probably better for both parties to cut ties for good.

So who will replace him alongside Woll in the Toronto crease?

Berube will have thoughts on that question. He saw the difference a goaltender can make when Jordan Binnington played lights out for the Blues during their Cup run. The upcoming free agent class isn't riddled with options, though.

Laurent Brossoit could be a solid piece in tandem with Woll -- if Toronto is prepared to hand him the starting job despite a history of injuries. Brossoit lived in Connor Hellebuyck's shadow with the Winnipeg Jets but was 15-5-2 with a .927 save percentage in 2023-24. Anthony Stolarz and Cam Talbot are veterans with ample experience to balance Woll's youth. Could the Leafs rely on either to play a significant role in the event Woll was hurt? That could be a red flag.

Toronto might have to explore a trade route to bolster its netminding. Liljegren or Robertson being available could aid in getting a deal done. Nashville's Juuse Saros and Calgary's Jacob Markstrom were mentioned in trade rumors ahead of the in-season deadline, and would be the top names making the rounds as conversations ramp up leading into the draft. Treliving was the GM in Calgary when Markstrom signed his current six-year, $36 million deal in 2020.

However the Leafs manage it, selecting their next significant goaltender will loom large -- and the choice Treliving ultimately makes is going to have far-reaching effects on what the Leafs accomplish next season.