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Nylander defends Leafs’ core after playoff exit, Toronto again picks up the pieces

William Nylander stood in a solemn visitors locker room at TD Garden just before midnight.

The Maple Leafs had battled back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Boston Bruins with consecutive 2-1 victories – including one that required extra time – in their first-round playoff series to push the club’s Original Six rival to the limit before suffering a devastating Game 7 overtime loss.

Nylander’s message was emphatic.

“Look, I don’t think there’s an issue with the core,” the winger said of Toronto’s gifted, high-paid and, to date, underachieving nucleus just before Saturday turned into Sunday. “I think we were (expletive) right there all series and battled hard, got to Game 7 and OT.

“That’s a (expletive) feeling.”

It’s the job of general manager Brad Treliving to take sentiment out of the equation.

Nylander, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares make up the Leafs’ so-called “Core Four” of talent up front.

There’s no doubting the individual ability the Leafs have accumulated. Matthews led the NHL with an outrageous 69 goals in the regular season, Nylander hit 98 points, and Marner was on pace to crack 100 for the first time before suffering a high ankle sprain in March.

Tavares, meanwhile, had his worst offensive campaign since 2016-17 and will be 34 in September, but he’s provided value on the free-agent contract he signed six summers ago.

The Leafs, however, are in an all-too-familiar spot – out at the post-season’s first hurdle for the seventh time in eight years. Matthews had four points in the 2024 series with the Bruins despite missing two games. Nylander scored twice in Game 6 and again in Game 7 coming off a migraine headache that kept him out of the first three contests.

Marner, however, had just three points and Tavares added two over their seven appearances in a showdown that saw Toronto score just 12 times and go an unacceptable 1-for-21 on the power play.

The Leafs stars made available to the media late Saturday were asked about the future of the core – which currently accounts for roughly half Toronto’s salary cap number – as currently constructed.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Matthews said. “We haven’t quite gotten over that hump. But through the years, you grow and we become extremely close.”

Toronto did finally experience a playoff breakthrough last spring when a string of post-season misery ended with its first series triumph in nearly two decades.

The good vibes were short-lived with a meek five-game exit in the second round. The questions about this group’s ability to get it done resurfaced.

That chatter is now front-of-mind once more.

Head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose future will also be a topic of discussion despite a contract extension that’s yet to kick in, gave an honest assessment of how opponents, including the Bruins in these playoffs, approach his team’s usually potent attack with stiff defence that looks to stifle the middle of the ice.

“It’s very evident,” he said. “(When) teams play the Leafs, they set up the game for the Leafs to beat themselves.”

And therein might lie the problem.

Former GM Kyle Dubas kept faith in the core before being shown the door some 12 months ago. Treliving, who has re-signed the 26-year-old Matthews (four seasons) and 28-year-old Nylander (eight seasons) to big-money deals since taking the reins, will have to decide the path forward.

“All I’ll say is that the group pulled together,” Keefe added. “The way it pulled together here in this last week, and through the season, this group was different this year. The core you’re referring to isn’t different.

“The guys around were different, the feeling around the team was different, we played different. I thought we showed signs in this series of a team that could win.”

The overall evidence has largely suggested otherwise. Change could be coming.

Marner – a lightning rod for criticism at times – can ink an extension July 1, while Tavares has a year left on his contract.

“It’s a very small difference,” Tavares said of moments the Leafs have been unable to unlock. “No doubt that we’re right there.”

Keefe has no choice other than to keep the faith in a central group that, despite whatever positive steps may have been taken in terms of its approach to playoff hockey, once again failed the post-season test.

“There’s a lot of good things that happened in this series,” Keefe said. “With how the team played, how it bought into a plan, and found success to give us a chance.

“Come up just short. But there’s reasons for me to believe that this team will win.”

Treliving has to decide if he agrees.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2024.

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