No easy answers for Maple Leafs after yet another First Round exit

Toronto Maple Leafs
Steve Russell, Getty Images

Sometimes teams can make bad decisions based on the result of a single playoff series or postseason run.

Those results can make teams believe they are closer to a championship than they actually are, leading to commitments to the wrong people. Or it can lead to teams believing they have problems that do not actually exist, and then getting rid of the wrong people. Weird things can happen in a best-of-seven series that are not always the most accurate representation of a team. A hot (or cold) goalie can dramatically change things. An unexpected injury. Just some random bounces and bad luck.

Basically, sometimes stuff (or a stronger word if you choose) happens.

This all brings us to the 2022 Toronto Maple Leafs who are again sitting here in the early spring trying to figure out everything that went wrong after yet another First Round exit.

Looking at it in a vacuum with no other context there is nothing majorly wrong with this particular Maple Leafs team. They had a great regular season, played well in a best-of-sevens series against a really good Tampa Bay Lightning team, and just did not get the result in a close, one-goal Game 7. They did not embarrass themselves, they did not get run out of the building every night, and it was not a miracle that they were here.

In most circumstances, fine, bring that team back mostly unchanged, give the coach and general manager another chance, and see if you can get a better result. Maybe you will. Chances are you actually will.

[Related: Tampa Bay Lightning beat Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7]

The problem is we have all seen this movie before. We have seen it so many times that we knew exactly how it was going to go, so much so that you could literally script it out step-by-step, game-by-game, moment-by-moment. Because it happens every. Single. Year. The same way. At some point when you keep finishing in second or third place in your division, and you keep losing in the First Round, and you keep doing so by collapsing with 3-1 or 3-2 series leads, that is simply what you are. That is what you are capable of.

The expectation should not be a Stanley Cup every year, or reaching a certain point, or even advancing every year. Sometimes you lose and there is no specific reason for it. Stanley Cup or bust mentality is setting yourself up for disappointment, even with the very best teams. But it is not an unfair expectation to want this Maple Leafs team to accomplish something with this roster.

“Win a round” is not setting an unreachable, unfair bar for a team that has superstars all over its roster, including a 60-goal scorer and likely MVP winner.

Do. Something.

Anything. Even the smallest possible achievement that makes us believe some progress is being made. Beyond that, this is not even a Stanley Cup or bust mindset here. The bar for this Maple Leafs team right now is actually very low (too low, considering the talent). If they had beaten Tampa Bay and then lost to Florida in the next round this season would have been viewed as, mostly, a success, and nobody would have questioned bringing it all back. There would have been no overly harsh criticism because they actually cleared that first hurdle and progressed. They can not even reach that.

Before the Lightning won their past two Stanley Cups, they were at least making the Eastern Conference Finals almost every year (and a Stanley Cup Final!) before losing in soul-crushing fashion to the the team that would always go on to actually win the Stanley Cup. They were right on the threshold of greatness. They just could not go that last inch.

When the Alex Ovechkin Capitals were getting destroyed for not being good enough, they would at least regularly finish with the league’s best record and win their division every year, and then win a round before losing to Pittsburgh in the Second Round every year.

Colorado wins its division and at least a round every year before it fizzles out.

There was always something tangible accomplished with those teams.

But in six years what has this Toronto team done that it can point to as a reason to keep running it back?

No Presidents’ Trophies. The only division title was the shortened season, North Division all Canadian team division. No series wins.

It was said during the TV broadcast on Sunday night that sometimes the First Round can be the toughest hurdle to overcome, but since the start of the 2016-17 season there have been only eight other franchises (excluding Seattle) that have not won at least one playoff series. Those teams are Arizona, Buffalo, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, New York Rangers, and Los Angeles. The Rangers and Calgary could remove themselves from that list on Sunday night. That is not really the type of company Toronto wants to be keeping. Or should be keeping.

[Related: 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, TV Info]

Yes, the Atlantic Division is very good. And yes, sometimes the Maple Leafs get tough draws in the First Round. But they also got draws against Columbus and Montreal the past two years, teams they were HEAVILY favored against. And lost. Of the five previous teams that knocked then out none of them went on to a championship that season (though, to be fair, two did reach the Final) while three of them went on to lose in the very next round. They are not always running into unstoppable buzzsaws.

This is what the Maple Leafs are. A very good team, probably a top-10 team that is going to make the playoffs every year. But beyond that, they are not a championship level team or an elite team as currently constructed, built, and run. We know that because they keep showing us what they are every year. With alarming consistency and precision.

What do you do to fix it? This is where things get difficult. Tearing it down to the ground would be nonsensical.

You are not going to trade Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner. They are too good.

You are not going to trade William Nylander. He is too much of a value against the salary cap (and too good).

But beyond, nothing should really be off the table on or off the ice. The front office has been far from perfect with a lot of its roster moves. The depth was fine during the regular season, but got badly exposed against Tampa Bay in the playoffs, as the Lightning absolutely took a sledgehammer to them territorially when neither Matthews, Marner, or Nylander was on the ice. John Tavares is a fantastic offensive player but has done nothing to advance the franchise, and is mostly an $11 million per year luxury they do not need. And his contract is unmovable (by way of a no-movement clause, and the fact nobody else will want it).

The Maple Leafs are a good team that still has a lot of problems. Nobody should expect those problems to go away and the results to change by continuing to bring everything back. Whether it is major changes to the roster, coaching staff, or front office, something eventually has to give here. The status quo can not be good enough for this team at this point in its development.

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    Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

    NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

    The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

    Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

    The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

    New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

    General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

    Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports
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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.