Can Maple Leafs maintain trust in their process, and players?

Can Maple Leafs maintain trust in their process, and players?
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At this point, it’s only human for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans to feel a little anxious. After all, the Maple Leafs saw four straight seasons end in one-and-done series, while the franchise hasn’t advanced beyond the first round since 2003-04. Over the last few days, it’s been interesting to hear outlooks from coach Sheldon Keefe, and especially GM Kyle Dubas.

Dubas calls for more from top Maple Leafs players

If there’s an overarching theme to the Maple Leafs’ offseason, it’s adding grit. Elbow grease. Sandpaper. (Insert other cliche-tinged buzzwords.)

Still, if you follow the money and mere logic, the Maple Leafs likely will live or die based on the play of big-money forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander.

As you can see from this fascinating piece by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Dubas asked for more from those top Maple Leafs stars. That doesn’t necessarily mean more flashy goals or offensive pyrotechnics. Instead, it’s about winning the not-so-glamorous puck battles that sometimes set the stage for those highlight reel moments.

“Our core group I think really embracing the fact that this is a wonderful opportunity if they’re willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their own individual realms as all young teams do with young superstars,” Dubas said. “Players have to go through this. There’s so many examples from all over sports and all over different types of businesses. Then we’ll really reach our full potential.”

Interesting insight about other sports

You can sometimes gain some interesting perspective when you hear Dubas, Keefe, and others talk about other sports. (Granted, sometimes such comments can feel a little more generic. Sheldon Keefe evoking Seahawks coach Pete Carroll? A bit yawn-inducing.)

In Dubas’ case, Johnston notes that the Maple Leafs GM backed up the Tampa Bay Rays’ widely criticized decision to pull Blake Snell from Game 6 of the World Series. To Dubas, “they trusted the way they’ve done it.”

One can almost hear the polarizing phrase “Trust the Process” in Dubas’ viewpoint of the Rays’ decision with Snell.

Personally, the Maple Leafs’ smaller offseason moves seem like savvy, PR-friendly ways to satisfy those who want grit without actually diverging from the larger plan. While adding T.J. Brodie is likely a more important tweak, bringing in Wayne Simmonds might quiet critics down. At least a bit.

Ideally, the Maple Leafs might parallel a more directly pertinent team in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Yes, after the Lightning got swept by the Blue Jackets, the franchise did make changes. But they also didn’t blow everything up. One season after that heartbreak, the Lightning won the first Stanley Cup of the Jon Cooper era.

It’s unclear if the Maple Leafs can pull off the same turnaround. After all, with apologies to the excellent Morgan Rielly, they don’t employ a Victor Hedman-level defensive superstar. Zooming out, though, Dubas has reason to believe in bigger things for the Maple Leafs.

One area that didn’t really get a mention

Interestingly, there haven’t been many criticisms of an area that could use some improvement next season: goaltending.

Being that he’s entering a contract year and suffered some playoff heartache, there were rumblings about Frederik Andersen‘s future with Toronto. Instead, Toronto worked around the margins, adding depth options in Aaron Dell and Michael Hutchinson.

Either way, the Maple Leafs must hope for more from Andersen and their goalies in 2020-21.

In 2019-20, Andersen’s save percentage sank to a more pedestrian .909, while his Goals Saved Against Average was -.40, by Hockey Reference’s metric. Andersen’s previous three seasons with the Maple Leafs had been fantastic. Really, it’s fair to wonder if they leaned so heavily on Andersen that he finally started to break down a bit last season.

By no means was Andersen flat-out terrible, mind you. Yet the Maple Leafs carry heavy expectations, and another bumpy year could be painful.

Fair or not, goals like this Liam Foudy groaner stick in fans’ memories, obscuring Andersen’s .936 save percentage in that Columbus series:

In a way, bringing back Andersen is as much a testament to trusting the Buds’ process as any other move this offseason. We’ll see if those moves — and that patience — can finally pay off in 2020-21.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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