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What's next for Leafs after another early playoff exit

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They had it.

The Toronto Maple Leafs had a 1-0 lead over the Boston Bruins with 11 minutes left in Saturday's Game 7. Then, like all good things tend to do in the Leafs' Auston Matthews era, the lead slipped away in excruciating fashion.

Bruins defenseman Hampus Lindholm flicked a shot past goalie Ilya Samsonov to quickly tie the game before maligned superstar David Pastrnak completed the comeback with a nifty deke early in overtime. Bruins 2, Leafs 1, and Boston suddenly has a second-round date with the Florida Panthers.

The Leafs now sit 1-8 in playoff series and 0-5 in Game 7s since Matthews' rookie season. This particular series featured several injuries/illnesses to key players, including Matthews, but, sorry, the fan base isn't accepting excuses.

These uber-talented, unreliable Leafs haven't earned the benefit of the doubt. So, what hangs in the balance after another early playoff exit? Let's discuss.

Shanahan and the coach

Brendan Shanahan's been atop the organizational chart since April 2014. The president and alternate governor has largely operated in the shadows over the past decade, but there might not be anywhere to hide this offseason.

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Shanahan, 55, has presided over a teardown, rebuild, and rise. He's been around for regular-season dominance and, far more relevant to his job security, zero deep playoff runs. He's handpicked three general managers, and not one of them - not old-school Lou Lamoriello, new-wave Kyle Dubas, or Brad Treliving, who's somewhere in the middle - figured out the puzzle.

All of this failure after an enviable head start. The Leafs happened to win the draft lottery the same year Matthews became eligible, and he's blossomed into a generational goal-scorer with a Selke Trophy-caliber defensive game.

The franchise's ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, hired a new leader earlier this year. CEO Keith Pelley surely wants to put his stamp on MLSE, and firing the longtime president would send an appropriate message to players and fans. (Shanahan's contract reportedly expires in summer 2025.)

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Treliving's been in the GM's chair for less than a year so it would be odd to can him. It'd be downright shocking, though, if management kept the coach.

Sheldon Keefe's the easiest and most obvious person to blame. Hired in 2019, Keefe, the fifth-longest tenured NHL coach, has worn out his welcome.

The names ahead of him on the list: Jon Cooper, Jared Bednar, Mike Sullivan, and Rod Brind'Amour - three Stanley Cup champions and another universally respected coach. The four directly behind Keefe: Martin St. Louis, Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, and Pete DeBoer - all objectively good, if not great.

No team scored more five-on-five goals than the Leafs during the regular season. They also boasted the seventh-best power play. Yet, in seven games against Boston, Toronto produced 11 five-on-five goals and one power-play marker in 21 opportunities, which is the rough equivalent of two full periods.

If everything else was clicking, you could handwave the scoring issues. But Keefe's been outcoached numerous times in the playoffs, and his message must be growing stale inside the dressing room. It sure has on the outside.

Time to move onto Craig Berube - or a coach of similar pedigree and style.

Marner and the core

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One particular phrase tends to get thrown around a lot after Leaf playoff exits.

Blow it up.

As in, the front office should dismantle the long-standing core of Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly. The problem with "blow it up" at this point in the process is that, in practice, Treliving can do only so much heavy lifting. He's essentially stuck.

Matthews, the 69-goal man, and Nylander, the 98-point guy, haven't started their long-term extensions, so neither forward is going anywhere (nor should they given how well they've played in recent postseasons). Rielly's the team's best defenseman, his contract is fine, and he owns a no-move clause. He likely stays put. The other two - Tavares and Marner - also own no-moves.

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Marner, whose underwhelming, three-point series was capped by a missed assignment on Pastrnak's OT goal, should be asked to waive his NMC. And perhaps Marner would entertain a change of scenery ahead of the final year of his current deal. He's human and dealing with the fan vitriol can't be fun.

Maybe Treliving and Marner can work together on moving him to a favorable destination. (The Leafs would almost certainly lose said trade, by the way. The club can't hide its desperation and Marner's stock has never been lower.)

But that's a gigantic maybe. The player's well within his rights to not waive.

The same roadblock exists with Tavares, except it'd be infinitely harder to offload the 33-year-old and his $11-million cap hit. He's a distressed asset.

What Treliving can fully control: the captaincy and future deals. Stripping Tavares of the "C" could create unnecessary drama, so it might not be worth the hassle, even if Matthews deserves the honor. The other part? Treliving definitely shouldn't be talking extension with Marner or Tavares on July 1.

Knies, Woll, and the rest

The Leafs' grand experiment of relying on the handful of players who eat up half of the salary cap is inherently flawed. If just one high-salaried star isn't living up to his contract - for instance, Tavares for the last few years - the GM must reap surplus value from virtually every other spot on the 23-man roster.

Put another way, you can't have TJ Brodie ($5 million of cap), David Kampf ($2.4 million), and Calle Jarnkrok ($2.1 million), among others, contribute very little over the course of a playoff series and expect to emerge victorious.

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Toronto's injected leadership, sandpaper, and defense over the years. They've hit on some acquisitions, whiffed on others, and made out alright on most.

For whatever reason, the mix has always been off - slightly or majorly.

This summer's unrestricted free-agent list includes forwards Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi; defensemen Brodie, John Klingberg, Joel Edmundson, Ilya Lyubushkin, Jake Muzzin, and Mark Giordano; and goalies Ilya Samsonov, Matt Murray, and Martin Jones. Only three or four are worth keeping around.

Leaf fans should be pumped about the youth movement. Matthew Knies is a top-six winger with big-game DNA. Bobby McMann, who missed the playoffs due to injury, has evolved into an impactful forward. If his health holds up, Joseph Woll's tracking toward legitimate No. 1 goalie status. Prospects Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten project to be difference-makers someday.

Still, there's no Matthews-level savior coming - and that's totally normal for a team that's made eight straight postseasons. What isn't normal is the annual tradition of the group never reaching its full potential. Same old story.

John Matisz is theScore's senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (

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