The NHL staged one of the most unprecedented elimination tournaments in sports history, and the Toronto Maple Leafs barely got a taste of it. They took the ice against the Columbus Blue Jackets Aug. 2. By Aug. 9, the Leafs were hanging their heads, watching the final seconds of their season melt away in a series-clinching a Game 5 defeat.
By Wednesday, when the Leafs conducted their season-ending media availability, they were just like the rest of us: back at their homes, operating on Zoom in their offices and kitchens. The bubble life was over almost as quickly as it began,
The mood was predictably somber. It always is when a team with high expectations for itself gets knocked out early. But when that team has failed to win a playoff series for the fourth consecutive season, the despair is particularly palpable, especially after a series defeat that included a blown 3-0 lead in a Game 3 loss and a miraculous comeback from 3-0 in Game 4.
“Having a good regular season really isn’t cutting it anymore,” said No. 1 center Auston Matthews. “We’ve got to figure out the playoffs, figure out how to get out of this first round. Four years in a row is pretty frustrating and a little bit embarrassing as well.”
So where do the Leafs go from here? As much talent as they boast on the roster, something has to change. Not that “blow it up” was the consensus from the players and management speaking Wednesday. Far from it. The ideas and opinions were all over the map, but nuking the roster was not the theme.
On the player side, during a season-ending presser, you’ll rarely if ever get an answer along the lines of, “Yep, this group stinks and needs to be hacked up into pieces.” Pro athletes are trained to have tremendous self belief, so it’s not a massive surprise that the Leafs players expressed a ton of confidence in each other Wednesday.
“The perception of maybe how things are going or how the team’s perceived outside of the locker room might be a lot different than what we believe in,” Matthews said. “The results in the playoffs and whatnot haven’t shown, but with the players we have on this team and the core group that we have, being together for four years now, we really believe that we’re right there. To be honest, we don’t really care what other people think or how far away other people think we are or the article that they’re going to write about all the things that we need. We believe in our management and our staff and the players in our organization that we’re going to power through the adversity and break through eventually.”
An optimist might believe Toronto can learn from the Washington Capitals. They used first-round picks to build a roster core around Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. From 2007-08 through 2016-17, they made the playoffs nine times and won three Presidents’ Trophies yet never escaped the second round of the playoffs. Finally, with that core four still aboard, they broke through to win the Stanley Cup in 2017-18. As Leafs GM Kyle Dubas suggested Wednesday, a team’s development isn’t some perfectly linear concept of advancing one round deeper every post-season and progressing to a championship. Sometimes you hit a wall for years until your core group breaks through and wins it all. And there’s something to be said for betting on elite raw talent.
“Having the type of skill and talent we have, I’d rather have that than not have that,” said captain John Tavares. “I think that’s certainly one of the hardest things to acquire in our game.”
The Leafs still believe in the nucleus of players they picked in the first round from 2012 through 2016: Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Matthews, plus Tavares, signed as a UFA in 2018. But can that group cultivate a playoff-warrior mentality? That’s what Leafs saw from beastly Blue Jackets center Pierre Luc-Dubois, who at times looked like he could simply will the puck into the net when his team really needed a goal.
“This group needs to dig in more,” said Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin, whose season ended after he sustained a scary undisclosed injury after an awkward fall late in Game 2. “Yeah, we have lots of skill and talent and speed, but in playoff hockey, the will to win has to burn a little hotter compared to the other stuff. Once we find that, we’ll be dangerous.”
Matthews spoke of needing killer instinct Wednesday. Dubas felt the Leafs lost the series in Game 1, when they were shut out, and Game 3 when they couldn’t close out the 3-0 lead. There’s a block with this team, a lack of nerve when the games get more intense in the post-season. Blueliner Rielly acknowledged the issue is partially mental, even if that’s just a small component of Toronto’s problem.
But if this group believes it can still succeed as is, where will the clutch, heart-and-soul heroism come from? Team president Brendan Shanahan said Wednesday he believes a team can develop grit, alluding to the likes of his old teammate Steve Yzerman, who filled the net in the first half of his career before evolving into a Selke Trophy-winning leader under coach Scotty Bowman and winning multiple Cups in Detroit.
“A lot of players that were accused of not being winners or accused of being too soft to win suddenly won, and they changed the narrative of themselves,” Shanahan said. “That’s not something new in sports in general. You have to win to change the narrative about who you are as an athlete. That’s not unique to Toronto. I do think that can develop, I do think players can change how they’re perceived. But we recognize that compete level and grit are something we have to help our team with.”
The Leafs put a lot of pucks toward Blue Jackets goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins in during the play-ins. Among 34 netminders who saw time during that round, they ranked 12th and seventh, respectively, in shots faced per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Yet they ranked 11th and 16th in high-danger shots against per 60, and they also faced among the fewest rush attempts and rebound attempts. Toronto was forced to the perimeter too often. It didn’t have the net crashers to penetrate Columbus’ phalanx of defenders under coach John Tortorella’s system. They scored just three 5-on-5 goals all series. So maybe the Leafs do need to add sandpaper to their forward corps, and not merely the kind that crashes and bangs for a few minutes a night on the fourth line, especially on a team whose coach, Sheldon Keefe, prefers to lean on his stars rather than roll every line. The change has to come within the top nine.
The Leafs’ management seemed pretty comfortable acknowledging that need Wednesday, most notably Dubas, who insisted he was “not stubborn” and attempted to rip off his label as a GM who goes all-in on skill rather than grit.
“I don’t find myself transfixed on one thing,” Dubas said. “I think you all think I have one way of going about things and that it’s never changing, but I think anybody who knows me or works with me would probably tell you it’s pretty much the opposite. At the end of every season, regardless of what the outcome has been, whether at different levels we’ve won or been into the playoffs or fallen short, there’s always a full review of where we’re at. And the vision for me always has to be changing. I don’t think any business or any team that just has one vision and one way of doing things that doesn’t change is going to be successful in the long run.”
As for the debate over team defense? It was a bit more contentious. Ask even a casual fan and they’ll tell you a group of Rielly, Muzzin, Justin Holl, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Travis Dermott wasn’t championship-caliber. But Dubas stood by his group – yes, even Ceci.
“I know Cody is much maligned at times, and he certainly doesn’t have the same level of puck skill as a lot of the others,” Dubas said, “but as we continue in hockey and tracking players and what their contributions are defensively, he’ll be a player who’s looked at much differently as those different things become much more public, not unlike they have in baseball or basketball, with the defensive value of different players and their impact on the game. I was happy with Cody as well.”
Dubas pointed out that the Leafs only surrendered 12 goals, two of which were empty-netters, in five games against Columbus. Several players, from Tavares to Marner, felt the Leafs improved drastically under coach Sheldon Keefe and that the work they put in during the COVID-19 shutdown translated defensively against Columbus. It’s tough to judge the Leafs’ stinginess by their performance against the lowest-scoring team in the entire tournament field of 24, but Toronto did allow the seventh-fewest 5-on-5 shots per 60 minutes of any team in the qualifying round. It surrendered the second-fewest high-danger shot attempts and had the second-lowest expected goals against per 60.
The day the Leafs axed coach Mike Babcock in November, they were allowing the eighth most shots per 60 at 5-on-5, the 18th-most scoring chances per 60. and the ninth-most high-danger attempts per 60. From the moment Keefe took over through the pause in March: the 17th most shots against per 60, 14th-most scoring chances against per 60 and 15th-most high danger attempts against per 60. Considering some of that time was spent with Rielly and Muzzin injured, it’s a sign of progress under Keefe for sure.
Still, even if we acknowledge the defensive gains, it’s not like the Leafs are a lockdown unit. They don’t have a pure, top-pair stopper in the mold of Columbus’ Seth Jones, even though prospect Rasmus Sandin shows major promise as a two-way presence. The Leafs need a 30-minute-a-night Clydesdale who can shut down other teams’ elite forwards. They had no answer for Dubois and even long, speedy rookie Liam Foudy at times.
Dubas expressed Wednesday that, contrary to popular belief, his team will not be jammed up against the salary cap with it staying flat at $81.5 million. But if Toronto isn’t in cap hell, it’s in purgatory at best. The Leafs are listed with $4.59 million in space and have two mid-tier RFAs to lock up in Dermott and left winger Ilya Mikheyev. If Dubas wants to bring in a top-tier defender, then, there’s no room to do so without sending a marquee forward out. It won’t be Matthews. It won’t be Tavares. Considering Dubas passionately defended Marner Wednesday, calling any critiques of him “idiotic,” it doesn’t feel like it’ll be Marner, either. Does that make right winger Nylander, who carries a $6.96-million AAV, the odd man out despite his 31-goal breakout? It’s too early to tell, but Dubas did concede that it would require a sacrifice to take a run at a Seth Jones type.
“The Nashville-Columbus trade was Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones,” Dubas said. “That’s the way we can acquire someone like that, and those types of trades don’t come along all too often as evidenced by the history of the league.”
Does that mean Dubas will cough up a key piece of high-skill forward talent in his quest to balance out this roster and give it more backbone in elimination games? It’s too early to tell. He was quick to defend his charges Wednesday, but that’s also GM Speak 101. You don’t trash your troops days after they’re eliminated. The words that carried more weight: Dubas’ insistence that he’s malleable and doesn’t want to build a team in a singular way. That might be the hidden message mixed into a lot of rah-rah talk. The players may desire another shot to fight for a Cup as an intact unit, but their GM wants nothing to do with the status quo.
If you’re placing bets on Toronto’s off-season activity, then? Expect at least one top-nine forward to change addresses. And expect at least one new defenseman in the top four on the 2020-21 blueline. It won’t a Barrie type this time, either. Toronto has to aim higher. It’s time to target a top-pair horse, whatever it costs.
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