As we prepare for the 2024 NHL offseason, we will evaluate not only the external options available to the Maple Leafs but also the roster players currently under contract.

The Leafs already have 10 forwards, four defensemen, and one goalie under contract for 2024-25. Two regular forwards—Nick Robertson and Connor Dewar—are restricted free agents, as is Timothy Liljegren, who is a regular on defense. 

We’re not expecting all 12 of those forwards or all five defensemen to remain on the roster. To help sort through the decisions to come this offseason, I will work through each player under contract before we discuss the team’s pending free agents and the available options in the UFA pool.

Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
Photo: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Auston Matthews
2023-24 Production69 goals and 107 points in 81 games (20:58 per game)
5v5 Results54.44 CF% | 65.39 xGF% | 81 goals for, 53 goals against
Contract StatusFour years remaining at $13.5 million AAV (NMC)

Matthews enjoyed a career season in 2023-24, racking up a personal-best 69 goals and 107 points. His 69 goals were the most goals in an NHL season since Mario Lemieux tallied 69 in 1995-96. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Matthews is one of the best goal-scorers of all time. 

In the first few months of the season, he started on a steady enough pace, putting up 10 points in nine games in October and 13 in 12 in November. When December hit, he really started to take off – 15 goals in 12 games (21 points), followed by 11 goals in 13 January games and another 13 goals in 12 February games. Overall, he piled up 55 points in 35 games in a three-month stretch. 

This was also the stretch when the Leafs really cemented themselves as a playoff team. In December, they merely stayed afloat, and in January, they were in the middle of a four-game losing streak before a Matthews hat trick propelled the team to a win against the Calgary Flames – a pivotal moment of the team’s season. On January 24, the Leafs were in the first wildcard spot, only three points clear of the New Jersey Devils.

In February, when Morgan Rielly was suspended for his cross-check at the buzzer on Ridly Greig, the Leafs and Matthews responded. #34’s 20 points in the month was tied for third in the league as the team recorded the fourth-highest points percentage in February and all but cemented a playoff berth.

In March, Matthews’ regular linemate Mitch Marner was injured, but Matthews kept on rolling. He eventually centered a line with Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, a trio that instantly clicked. It was so good that it gave Sheldon Keefe no choice but to finally split up the team’s stars across three lines – something that should have happened ages ago. 

While we naturally talk a lot about his scoring prowess, Matthews makes an honest defensive effort and doesn’t cheat for offense. Some of his defensive impact can be a bit overblown at times, too. Matthews was on for 53 goals against at 5v5 – right around Connor McDavid (57) and significantly lower than Nathan MacKinnon (65) – but he also wasn’t on the ice for nearly as many goals for, either (McDavid was on for 90 for and MacKinnon was on for 100). On the flip side, the player I’d consider to be the best defensive star in the league, Aleksander Barkov, was on for just 23 goals against at 5v5 and posted a higher overall goals for percentage than Matthews (as did McDavid). 

Ultimately, Matthews will be compared to these players, and rightfully so. As of July 1, he will be the highest-paid player in the league. His direct, natural comparisons are Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, but his playoff results are not close to theirs.

Playoff gamesPlayoff pointsPlayoff points per gameRegular season points per game

Slice it any way you want, but the bottom line is the bottom line. Matthews is the highest-paid player in the league and produces less when it matters most, while his two peers generally get better at crunch time.

Compounding the issue: The main reason the Leafs haven’t enjoyed long playoff runs in the spring is that they haven’t been able to score enough. An awful power play has been a big part of this problem. Matthews was injured (and sick) in the playoffs, and we can argue his Game 2 performance was the best playoff game of his career. He returned in Game 7 to play while hurt and set up the team’s only goal. We can squint and see some signs of optimism, but the results are the results.

Matthews has played a direct role in seven first-round losses in eight years, and at this point in his career, playoffs will be the primary barometer of his success. It would be foolish to disregard the fact that he is a great player and the best goal-scorer in the league. But the goal is to win the Cup, and it hasn’t been good enough when it matters most. 

As such, the question for Matthews and the Leafs this offseason is twofold: What can the Leafs do to better support Matthews, and what can Matthews do to better prepare for success in the playoffs?

William Nylander

William Nylander, Jeremy Swayman, Maple Leafs vs. Bruins
Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY
William Nylander
2023-24 Production40 goals and 98 points in 82 games (19:55 per game)
5v5 Results50.51 CF% | 51.45 xGF% | 57 goals for, 58 goals against
Contract StatusEight years remaining at $11.5 million AAV (NMC)

It was quite the 2023-24 season overall for Nylander, and sorting through it is an exercise in and of itself.

Nylander bet on himself, set a career-high in points, and landed a massive eight-year contract. He was saddled with an in-decline John Tavares for much of the season and spent a nearly month-long stretch centered by Max Domi, who is not exactly strong defensively. Nylander also played on the penalty kill for the first time in his career and acquitted himself well. As usual, he was the player moved around when lineup questions arose, regardless of his performance.

Specifically, Nylander played well alongside John Tavares and Bobby McMann in Marner’s absence, but he was moved down to play with Pontus Holmberg as his center for seemingly no on-ice reason. Nylander did his job without complaint, and we’re somehow at a point with this team where that sort of thing is commendable. 

It was a hot start to the season for Nylander, as he racked up 48 points in 34 games through the first three months of the season. The Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line was easily the Leafs’ best to start the season and indeed carried them for long stretches, with Nylander driving the trio offensively. When the Leafs went on their trip to Sweden, Nylander was a superstar, scoring multiple big goals in his home country as the Leafs swept the trip. By early January, Nylander had agreed to his massive 8-year, $92 million contract. 

The Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander line played over 365 minutes together, outscored opponents 16-12, and posted a 54CF% along with a 58.4xGF%. However, Bertuzzi wasn’t producing, the team was middling, and the other lines were struggling. As such, we started to see some experimentation from Sheldon Keefe.

First, Matthew Knies was shifted to the Tavares-Nylander line, and Bertuzzi moved up. The original line was then reunited, but Rielly was suspended, players fell sick, and the lines were moved around. Nylander joined Bertuzzi and Max Domi on a line that scored but was otherwise outplayed and struggled to exit their zone. 

Production-wise, February was Nylander’s best month with 21 points, second most in the league in the month, as the team boasted a record-setting power play month led by Nylander’s nine points. Marner hurt his ankle, Bertuzzi moved up with Matthews, and Nylander reunited with John Tavares with McMann on their left side. The trio played 75 minutes together, outscored opponents 6-2, owned 52% of the shot attempts and posted an xGF% of 59.76. 

When Marner returned, he took Nylander’s spot (for some reason), and Nylander dropped down to a line with Pontus Holmberg while Keefe awkwardly tried to move Nylander up to play with Tavares and Marner in spot duty. April was easily Nylander’s worst month, with just three assists in nine games. 

On the flip side of his overall offensive production, Nylander posted the second-worst 5v5 possession and expected goals numbers of his career. He was also outscored at 5v5 for the second time in three seasons. While some of this is not entirely his doing (note his linemates above), he is not entirely absolved of blame, either.

Nylander routinely blows the zone looking for offense, and while it can be effective for a quick-strike threat – the Leafs were second in the league in goals per game, and he was a big reason why – it can also cause all sorts of problems the other way. An Alex Lafreniere goal in March stands out; Nylander was benched for the remainder of the period. The offense is great – and so are the total numbers – but he can’t be outscored at 5v5, especially now that he is about to make $11.5 million. 

There are clearly working combinations available where Nylander can be the driving force offensively on a line that controls the play and scoring chances. He did it with McMann and Tavares, and both players are under contract and expected back next season. If Brad Treliving can bring back Bertuzzi, it would also make sense to give the Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander trio another look at some point, knowing they worked well together. 

The Leafs are clearly committed to Nylander, and it’s clear why — he is a true gamebreaker. He has shown it in the playoffs and did it again in Game 6 and Game 7 this spring. He thrives in the Toronto market – which is no small consideration – as the noise does not bother him at all. 

Nylander has arrived offensively, setting career highs in points in three straight seasons and scoring 40 goals in back-to-back seasons. But he can’t be outscored at 5v5 next season, and while his linemates were part of the weak possession results, the reality of a $11.5 million paycheque is that the buck ultimately stops with him.

Next up in the Offseason Evaluations series: Mitch Marner & John Tavares