Why Brendan Shanahan still believes in the Maple Leafs' Core Four
Toronto's "Core 4" has won just one playoff series in its five years together. Photo by Frank Gunn/CP.

TORONTO — If it seems like Brendan Shanahan has a belief in the Maple Leafs core that can withstand a ground-shaking event each spring, it’s because he does.

The president has remained steadfast in his support for the Core Four even while watching the atmosphere around them grow more turbulent with each passing playoff opportunity that doesn’t result in a deep run.

It fits his world view and aligns with his personal experience.

Remember that Shanahan was a second-overall pick drafted into a 21-team league who didn’t win the Stanley Cup until his 10th season. In fact, he was part of teams that won just three playoff series across those first nine years.

When he finally broke through with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, he did so alongside a captain in Steve Yzerman who had very nearly been traded to Ottawa the year before. Yzerman had been questioned and doubted plenty over his 14 seasons in Detroit to that point and went on to help bring three championships to the city with Shanahan.

Shanahan won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings. Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP.

That stands as a particularly instructive piece of history with the Maple Leafs now at an inflection point and Shanahan sitting atop their hockey operations pyramid. He’s started interviewing potential replacements for Kyle Dubas, cut loose as general manager last Friday, but is believed to have reiterated his support to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander in phone calls made after the front-office shakeup.

As unusual as that sounds with the GM search just beginning and the Leafs still licking their wounds following a second-round loss to Florida, it actually speaks to Shanahan’s tunnel vision.

During the increasingly rare times he’s publicly addressed the state of the franchise in recent years, he’s never once shown any hint of second thought about the foundation his roster is built on.

How Shanahan navigated a question about the potential for change during last Friday’s press conference — “Just being different doesn't solve something,” he said — was basically the same way he spoke to the issue during his year-end address in 2022 following the team’s first-round loss to Tampa: “We will not be making changes just simply for the sake of saying we made changes.”

And in 2021, days after the Leafs squandered a 3-1 series lead to Montreal in another first-round defeat, he was even more expansive on the need to stay the course through choppy waters.

“If you look throughout the history of hockey, there are lots of players who are in the Hall of Fame or who have their names etched on the Stanley Cup multiple times who went through this same experience early in their careers with their teams,” Shanahan said. “The teams that were wise enough to hang on them – to continue to surround them and develop them, and just keep trying and trying and getting better and improving – benefitted eventually.”

The Leafs are now seven years deep with Matthews, Marner and Nylander at the top of their lineup, and five with Tavares in tow, which makes Shanahan’s position increasingly difficult to hold.

Each successive year without a significant breakthrough adds another layer of doubt and brings more fans and media around to the idea the core needs a shakeup. You can include my name among those who wrote as much after seeing Matthews and Tavares held without a goal during a five-game loss to the Panthers that felt eerily similar to some of those we’ve witnessed in the past.

Of particular note is the fact Dubas seemed to get there, too.

When he spoke with reporters on May 15 he mentioned how the path might need to “shift slightly.” He pointed to the fact that the Panthers made big changes last summer following a thorough review of their Presidents’ Trophy campaign when they acquired Matthew Tkachuk in a blockbuster trade from Calgary for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

Just days before Dubas was fired as Leafs GM, he said: “I will consider anything with our group here that would allow us a better chance to win the Stanley Cup. I would take nothing off the table at all.”

While it remains to be seen how his successor views that equation, all indications suggest that Shanahan is comfortable heading into next season with $40-million tied up in four forwards.

The fact the NHL’s salary cap stalled these past few years was particularly punitive to the Leafs because they had been counting on those deals becoming less onerous over time. And it certainly doesn’t help that they may get burned again with the cap expected to start making significant jumps as soon as 2024, which will almost certainly impact the amount Matthews, Nylander and Marner seek on extensions.

They’re each approaching a third NHL contract and still have just the one playoff series victory to hang their hats on.

However, while there may be more external doubt than ever about their ability to get the job done together in Toronto, those players appear to have overwhelming support from the seat that matters most.

Consider what else Shanahan said about the Core Four in his 2021 end-of-season availability: “We are going to do this here in Toronto with this group. There will be changes that will be made. There will be tweaks along the way. The team will evolve. The people will evolve. But we are going to get this done.”

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