If you are the Maple Leafs there can only be one question rattling around inside your heads today.
What the heck do we do now?
Of all of the postseason shortcomings over the past two decades. All of the disappointments. All of the missed opportunities. This has to be the one that they look at and, I don’t know, just scream in anger.
This was the season. This was the team. Everything was lined up perfectly right in front of them. Maybe not to win the Stanley Cup, but to at least give their fans a reason to believe in them and a reason to celebrate them. They did not have to worry about Boston or Tampa Bay until the semifinals. They were in a division and a playoff format where they should have been heavy favorites in the first two rounds. It maybe should not have been a cakewalk to the semifinals, but it was the most manageable path they were ever going to get.
Then they fell flat on their face in a way that only the Maple Leafs can achieve.
After taking a 3-1 series lead against a Canadiens team that had the NHL’s 18th-best record, that they beat seven out of 10 times during the regular season (7-2-1), and that they finished 18 points ahead of the standings, they not only managed to lose three consecutive games to lose the series. They. Never. Held. Another. Lead.
Not even for one second. Over three games. With the season on the line. With a chance to win a playoff series for the first time in 17 years. They faced deficits of 3-0, 2-0, and 3-0 in each game, and while they managed to at least rally and force overtime in the first two games, they quickly lost both on mind-bending mistakes at the worst possible time.
In a vacuum you can forgive a playoff appearance like this. Overreacting to a seven-game sampling can usually have negative long-term effects that make your team worse than it needs to be. Sometimes you have to trust your process and count on the fact you will not always run into a Carey Price going on a three-game heater, or that your stars will score in another series. But this is not a one-time thing. This is a recurring problem, and it seems to be a team that has hit its peak as currently constructed.
For five years now the Maple Leafs have shown us who and what they are. They are a very good, but not great team. They will finish somewhere between seventh and 10th in the league standings, they will finish third in their normal division, and they will lose in the First Round. At least those pre-Cup Capitals teams would win the Presidents’ Trophy on a regular basis, win their division every year, and win a playoff round before running into Pittsburgh. Same with the old Joe Thornton–Patrick Marleau Sharks who would at least make the Western Conference Final on a regular basis. Same with the pre-Cup Lightning.
But this team? It can not even get by a 14th-ranked Blue Jackets or an 18th-ranked Canadiens team in the First Round.
The problem here is not the money they invested in their stars. Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa Bay all put a significant chunk of their salary cap space into a small number of players and have still found success. It is not a problem if you invest in the right players. Maybe this team doesn’t have the right players? I am loath to suggest a team trade its star players because those players are incredibly difficult to find, and you can not win without them on your roster.
Auston Matthews had 39 shots in seven games. That’s not so much underperformance as much as it is unlucky.
I am not going to crush Mitch Marner for going 18 playoff games without a goal because, believe it or not, it happens. Brad Marchand once went 20 consecutive playoff games without a goal. Jonathan Toews once went 19 games with only one goal in the same postseason.
William Nylander actually did produce in this series.
But, you also can’t hide from the team-wide results. This core group has not won a single thing. If there was some kind success here to build off it would be easier to say “stick with the plan. It is just a matter of time.” That is not happening.
In response to that, the Maple Leafs spent the past year trying to stock their roster with gritty, “tough to play against” veterans that were supposed to give them an edge in these close playoff games.
They brought back Jason Spezza, signed Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian and T.J. Brodie, and then acquired Nick Foligno and Riley Nash during the season. Outside of maybe Brodie and Spezza, none them fit the way Toronto plays. And outside of Spezza (who was very good), none of them did a single thing in the playoffs.
Maybe part of the problem is they didn’t stay true to who they are or what they should be? Maybe they should have followed the Colorado playbook and doubled down on skill and scoring and not listened to the cries for grit and sandpaper just for the sake of adding grit and sandpaper? Pick a path, stick with it.
Either way, this Toronto team in its current form keeps showing us what they are. It seems like the problem in taking the jump from good to great runs deeper than another coaching change or reshuffling fourth line given the way they keep falling short.
The good news is reshaping a significant chunk of the roster should not be a problem. They have 12 unrestricted free agents going into this offseason, and there is no reason to bring back any of them (including Zach Hyman).
The problem is they only have $12M in salary cap space to replace them. That is going to make it difficult. Maybe you do move somebody, and somebody significant.
Because something is not working here. By year five in this rebuild, and year seven of Brendan Shanahan’s tenure as team President, they should have more to show than one first place finish in a watered down division and zero trips to the Second Round. Not winning the Cup is not the failure. Doing absolutely nothing is the failure.
Because if they could not get it done this year, what makes you think it is going to change next season when they return to a division that has Boston, Tampa Bay, and a greatly improved Panthers team sitting in it? Because now you are back to a third-place finish and another First Round matchup against a team that is probably better than you. We have all seen that movie before.