The Time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to Push the Reset Button Was 2021

The Toronto Maple Leafs had an opportunity to push the reset button and break up the Core Four following the team's disastrous first-round exit in 2021. Unless the Leafs can win a Cup this year, the time to go into a rebuild could come at the end of this upcoming season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins had an opportunity to push the reset button and didn't. Instead, the team doubled down on its Core Four Strategy.
The Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins had an opportunity to push the reset button and didn't. Instead, the team doubled down on its Core Four Strategy. / Maddie Meyer/GettyImages

The opportunity the Toronto Maple Leafs had to push the reset button was back in 2021.

This assertion comes on the heels of a recent comment by Toronto Maple Leafs fan Steve Dangle. During a conversation between Dangle and journalist Chris Johnston, Dangle explained that he felt 2021 was the right time for the Leafs to break up the Core Four.

Check out the commentary here.

This hindsight is based on the Leafs’ catastrophic meltdown in which they blew a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens. That devastating loss provided the perfect cover for the Leafs to move one or several of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Wiliam Nylander, or Mitch Marner.

However, that never happened.

While I don’t always agree with everything Dangle says, I have to admit I agree with him on this one. If Maple Leafs’ management had ever thought about breaking up the band, 2021 was the right time to do it. But since they didn’t, the organization committed to hanging its hopes on the Core Four.

Who Would Have the Toronto Maple Leafs Moved in 2021?

Following the debacle against the Canadiens, fans and the media questioned whether the Leafs, as construced, would ever pay win. As such, calls went out for a major roster shakeup to happen. In hindsight, that would have been the best way to go.

So, let’s explore that thought a little further. Who would have been moved in 2021? In my estimation, the answer is fairly straightforward: Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

It’s virtually unthinkable that the club would have entertained trading Matthews. Tavares would have been tough to move due to his contract and his role on the team. As such, Marner and Nylander would have been on the chopping black.

Now, it’s hard to speculate what kind of return the Leafs would have gotten for either player. Most likely, they would have been involved in separate trades. Perhaps a number-one goalie would have come back along with a top-pairing defenseman.

Then, the Leafs could have allocated the cap space to fill out pressing needs in the bottom six and provide solid depth on the blue line. Although let's be very clear about something: the Leafs salary cap distrubution wasn't the problem in the Montreal series - the Leafs were a clear favorite who lost in an unlucky way.

The Leafs also iced one of the league's deepest teams after acquiring Ryan O'Reilly and Jake McCabe in 2023, and this past year they had $11 million in healthy-scratches for game 6. Therefore the problem is clearly in the team's make-up and not their salary cap distribution.

Fast forward three seasons later, and the Leafs have very little success to show. Pushing the reset button at this point seems virtually impossible. It’s hard to imagine that Matthews would play through a rebuild.

What would a rebuild even look like?

The last time the Leafs tanked, they got Matthews out of it. This time around that doesn’t seem likely.


For better or worse, the Leafs are stuck with the Core Four for at least one more season. If the plan is to push the reset button, the time will come at the end of this season. Unless the Leafs win a Cup this season, which I contend is going to be their best chance in a long time, the club will need to blow everything up and start over.