Another year, another epic choke.
Each playoff defeat in advance-or-go-home games just end up being more painful than the last.
The 2013 Leafs were heavy underdogs in round 1, but crawled back from down 3-1 to force a game 7. We all know the heartbreak that followed as the rag-tag team just couldn’t keep up with a Boston team destined to go to the finals. Leafs fans cried on the subway ride home from Maple Leaf Square as the image of James Reimer lying on the ice was burned into their collective consciousness.
It was an ugly scene.
2018 featured the same storyline of Toronto going down 3-1 to Boston in the first round, but forcing a game seven. This time they entered the third period up 4-3. Toronto would implode almost instantly after the puck dropped to start the period. The Leafs would go on to lose the game 7-4.
2019 saw Toronto once again match-up against Boston in round 1. This time the Leafs would go up 3-2 in the series with two chances to close out the series. Toronto would squander their chance to close it out at home and would implode in game seven again, losing 5-1.
2020 saw Toronto go up against Columbus in the qualifying round. A heartbreaking overtime loss in game three gave Columbus the 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. The buds would go down 3-0 in game four, but mounted a massive comeback, taking the game in overtime to tie the series. In the do-or-die game five, Toronto failed to score a single goal.
Thanks for coming out, now hit the golf course!
This was the year that was supposed to be different with a revamped defense and bottom part of the lineup. Though, the best thing to happen to the Leafs’ season was totally out of their control: all seven Canadian teams would be put in the same division for the 2021 season, and a Canadian team would be guaranteed to go to the final four.
This automatically made Toronto heavy favourites of the division by analysts and pundits everywhere in a seemingly weak North division. Not only were the Maple Leafs going to run away with the division in the regular season, but this was their chance to go on a deep run as well!
The regular season came with its fair share of ups and downs, but after the first couple weeks, Toronto would capture first place and basically never looked back. Auston Matthews would be on a torrid goal scoring pace and would go on to run away with the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals. Even with concerns about the condition of his wrist, he seemed to score almost every game. Frederik Andersen would lose the starting goaltending job, but Jack Campbell would pick up the pieces almost instantly proving himself to be the Leafs goalie of the present and future.
The only major red flag came from the team’s issues on the powerplay starting midway through the season. As successful as the team was out of the gate on the man advantage, they slipped to 16th in the league with a 20% success rate when the season was done. There seemed to be a stubbornness to the powerplay as the Matthews-Marner unit kept trying the same plays but to no avail. Despite the powerplay issues, management decided to go all-in during the lead up to the trade deadline trading seven picks for the next two drafts. When the season ended, Toronto won their division and would meet up with their most historic rivals for their first playoff series against each other since 1979.
Game one in Toronto did not see the Leafs get off on the best foot; not only did Toronto not find much offense early, but they would lose their captain, John Tavares, just 9:30 into the game after being taken out by Corey Perry. After a lengthy stoppage, Nick Foligno challenged Perry to a fight. Regardless of whether or not you think the fight was warranted (I didn’t think it was), it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the fight, it’s about showing up. Unfortunately for the Leafs, this strategy backfired as the fight lit a fire under Montreal with Josh Anderson scoring soon after. Nylander would tie the game in the second, but a horrendous Leafs powerplay led to the winning goal scored shorthanded by Paul Byron. The team had trouble scoring, which made it crystal clear that Carey Price was back in prime form for the series.
Toronto would rebound in game two, and besides an early goal by Jesperi Kotkaniemi, it was all Leafs. Matthews had a big game with a goal and two assists and the team even managed two goals on the powerplay. When the series shifted to Montreal for game three, Toronto played another strong game, going into the third up 2-1, and held down the fort in the third to take the series lead. Game four was even better for Toronto as depth scoring led the way to a 4-0 shutout for a 3-1 series lead. Toronto would have three chances to close out the series and advance to the second round for the first time since 2004.
Games five and six went pretty much the same. Montreal would jump on Toronto, shutting down the top line and never trailed in those games. The Canadiens top four defensemen (Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry) were able to keep the Leafs forwards in check and didn’t allow them easy access into the Habs’ defensive zone. Toronto would mount a comeback in games five and six, forcing overtime. Game five saw Montreal get a 2-on-0 early in overtime, thanks to a brutal turnover by Alex Galchenyuk in the offensive zone, leading to Nick Suzuki scoring the winner. Game six’s OT saw Toronto dominate for fifteen minutes, not letting Montreal get a single scoring chance. All it took was for Travis Dermott to lose the puck at his own blueline for Paul Byron to steal the puck and pass it to Kotkeniemi for the series tying goal. Hope was not high going into game seven in Leafs Nation, but the game still had to be played.
Sheldon Keefe was saying all the right things going into the win-or-go-home game seven. He admitted that the Leafs play in the last couple games had gotten them into the mess they were in, but with the history of the team’s failure to win in these kinds of games, it was a tremendous opportunity to change the narrative. As much as this looked like a mismatch on paper, this is still the Leafs we’re talking about, of course it was going to game seven!
Yeah, the situation sucked, but if the team made a run, it would just end up as a footnote in the history books. As much as Keefe’s little media message fired me up, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of dread just minutes before the game started. And as the game started, my worst fears were coming to life, Toronto didn’t seem to have much fight. Worst of all, the Matthews-Marner line had plenty of trouble gaining clean entry into the offensive zone. Then, Montreal managed to score the first goal just minutes into the second period. Corey Perry would add one on the powerplay with five to go in the second. In the third, Toronto would out-shoot Montreal by a wide margin, but it just didn’t matter. Tyler Toffoli would score an empty-netter which would seal the deal despite a late goal from William Nylander to break the shutout.
It was just another disappointment in a long sequence since 1967. Toronto never even held a lead in the three contests they had the opportunity to close out the series. Time for another long summer.
First, let’s give credit where it’s due: Montreal played their butts off this series. Carey Price reverted back to the form that made him a star and he just put himself at the front of the list to be Canada’s starting goalie at the next Olympics. Next, the Habs top-four defense group of Weber, Edmundson, Chiarot and Petry all played big minutes and were able to keep the Leafs best players from entering the offensive zone cleanly. Also, hard-matching the Danault-Gallagher line against the Matthews-Marner line would help enormously to keep that line off the scoresheet. Everyone else on Montreal knew what their role was and played a tight game, sticking to their system and waiting for their opportunity to pounce on Toronto.
Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for: what went wrong for Toronto?
Yes, the loss of captain John Tavares was unfortunate, but it shouldn’t be an excuse as to why Toronto lost; they were still heavily favoured on paper. Of course the top line of Matthews-Marner-Hyman was incredibly underwhelming besides a brief bright spot in game two. Mitch Marner is relied on as the primary puck-handler of the line to gain clean entry into the offensive zone and to create offense once in there. There was an unwillingness to adapt to the tight-checking style Montreal brought forth and it became all too common to see Marner trapped at the blueline by a swarm of Habs players, then losing possession.
Zach Hyman would bring his usual tenacious play to the table, but he looked out of sorts and a step behind the play all series. Auston Matthews didn’t have the puck on his stick for a vast majority of the series which was obviously a huge issue. Deadline acquisition Nick Foligno would also look out of sorts for the four games he entered. His timing was slightly off and it became a common sight to see him in front of the net without a clue as to where the puck was, when it was right under him. It didn’t matter what line he was placed on, he was just not effective.
Veterans Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds looked old and slow and did not provide the spark many thought they would bring. Lastly, the youngest two defensemen on the team each had their turn to play scapegoat throughout the series. For Rasmus Sandin, it was in game five when he recorded a -2 rating in just 6:11 of ice time. His giveaways led to the first and third goals for Montreal. Travis Dermott’s turn came in the next game when his turnover in the defensive zone led to the winner by Kotkaniemi. Scoring was obviously a huge issue in general for the Leafs, with the only bright spots in this area being Nylander, Kerfoot and Spezza. Looking back, you have to wonder if going after Foligno (and giving up a first round pick for him) was the right move. Taylor Hall, Jeff Carter, Kyle Palmieri and Sam Bennett were all moved around the time of the trade deadline and could have all been much better scoring options than Foligno.
There’s questions of whether some of said players would have waived their no-trade clauses to come to Toronto (especially in Hall’s case), but it seems that Toronto wasn’t interested in an offensive upgrade to begin with. Now that we know what went wrong comes the hard part: where the heck do we go from here?
It’s clear from Shanahan’s and Dubas’ postseason media conference that the core four (Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nylander) will be back next season. Nearly half of the Maple Leafs’ cap space is dedicated to these four forwards. These players were signed to their current contracts in anticipation of the cap ceiling rising over the next few seasons. No one saw this pandemic coming, and despite the NHL coming to new broadcasting agreements with ESPN and TNT, the cap will be stagnant for the next few seasons.
Also consider that of the players with the 15 highest cap hits in the league, just Carey Price remains in the playoffs. Toronto has three of the top seven cap hits in the league. Is it even possible for the team to have playoff success with these four all together? Frederick Andersen will not be back with the team next season, unless he’s willing to take a big pay cut, freeing $5 million of cap space, but Jack Campbell will need a raise in a year’s time which won’t offer much flexibility. Rumour has it that Zach Hyman turned down a deal worth $5 million per season from Toronto.
If there’s any truth to him wanting more than that, it’s best to part ways as his grind-you-down style of play will probably not age gracefully (especially since he’s 29 years old this summer). It looks as if Jason Spezza will be back next season, and management will be praying that he’s willing to come back at minimum salary. After Alex Galchenyuk’s career was pulled out of the gutter by the Maple Leafs, I suspect that he would be willing to come back on a relatively team-friendly deal (1 or 2 years) to raise his stock so he can eventually cash-in.
Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds should not be brought back, as the experiment to bring them in proved that more veterans does not equal more success. I’m not against bringing Zach Bogosian back, but I doubt he would want to re-sign with the team on a sweetheart deal after this collapse. Nick Foligno and Riley Nash were brought in as rentals and I can’t see either of them signing back. Of course, there’s also the issue of the looming expansion draft. I suspect Alexander Kerfoot will be plucked away from the Leafs given that he’s a fairly reliable middle-six forward that can play in a variety of roles, including both special teams. He’s also locked into his contract for two more years which should be appealing to Seattle.
Travis Dermott would be another logical choice, but given he’s a restricted free agent this summer, and Seattle will have their hands full, I can only see him getting taken for him to be flipped immediately to another team. If Dermott is not picked up by Seattle, Toronto will almost certainly flip him to another team to try and recoup some of the draft picks that they lost at the trade deadline, or a prospect of similar value. Toronto only his its own 2nd, 5th and 6th round picks this year, and just its own 1st, 2nd and 7th picks next year. There’s a decent pile of prospects in the system, but the way this team is built, they need a steady stream of talent on cheap deals to crack the lineup and give them value.
Going into next season, if Kerfoot is still around, Toronto’s forward group projects to be:
??? – Matthews – Marner
Galchenyuk – Tavares – Nylander
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Engvall
Robertson/Anderson – Brooks – Spezza
If Kerfoot is grabbed by Seattle, we have this instead:
??? – Matthews – Marner
Galchenyuk – Tavares – Nylander
Robertson – Engvall – Mikheyev
Anderson – Brooks – Spezza
The defense and goaltending will look to shape-up like this:
Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Sandin – Liljegren
These are hardly enough to fire one up for next season. In fact, it’s downright scary especially with Toronto (supposedly) going back into the Atlantic division next season with powerhouse squads Tampa Bay, Boston and Florida. Not to mention the Montreal team that just beat you, and quickly improving Detroit and Ottawa teams. But hey, there’s still Buffalo that we can beat up on!
Of course there’s always the chance of a big trade or signing, but with Toronto right up against the cap for the foreseeable future, it does not look very likely. The future success or failure of the team falls on the players, specifically the big boys, already on the Leafs roster. Shanahan says the team is lacking a killer instinct; understatement of the year. The players and management can talk all they want about how this is a learning experience and how this is a group that they believe in, but talk is cheap.
Leafs fans are sick of the playoff let downs and each one has just been worse than the last. I don’t envy the job that management has in front of them this summer, but this is a mess they got themselves into so they’re not getting any sympathy from anybody. At this point, it’s hard to see this team making a deep run in the playoffs any time soon. But hey, I’ve been wrong about this team for the last few years.
P.S. The in-arena experience for the Leafs needs a MASSIVE overhaul. When I go to a Raptors game I feel a wave of excitement pass through the entire arena, but the atmosphere of a Leafs game can be downright boring on the wrong night. And for the love of all things good, get rid of the Hall & Oates goal song; hearing it played after that final goal by William Nylander was just a sad sight to behold.