Another Year and Another Early Exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs

The NHL playoffs should be an exciting time of year for hockey fans, especially if your team is in the playoffs.  The exception being if you're a Toronto Maple Leaf's fan, if the Leafs are in the playoffs, then you are not excited, you are filled with dread.  The 2021 NHL season gave Leaf fans hope, Toronto would play all of its regular-season games against the other Canadian NHL teams, and they would play two rounds against Canadian teams in the playoffs before finally playing an American team.  The Leafs finished first place in the Northern Division, and they faced the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.  Many experts and fans predicted the Leafs to take that series in at most five or six games, the series went to seven games and the Leafs lost.  The Leafs have now been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, in 2017 they were beaten by Washington, in 2018 and 2019 they were beaten by Boston, in 2020 it was Columbus who beat the Leafs and Montreal sent them home early in 2021.  Leaf fans expected better in 2021, Kyle Dubas (the Leafs General Manager) went out and added a lot of key pieces to help this team get over the hump.  Dubas did his job, but the coach and players let him down.  The Leaf's offseason has officially begun, and the organization and fans are still at a loss for how the season ended so quickly.  


I watched the end-of-season player and organization media interviews, and what I saw was a team that has no answers as to what went wrong.  I know what wrong, but I do not know why.  To me the issue is the same one that caused their early exits in the last few seasons; the Leafs lack intensity.  Montreal, Columbus and Boston all played with intensity, and they all rolled over the Leafs who were not able to match their opponents' level of intensity.  Teams that want to win play hard, and for some reason the Leafs don't do that.  I am not saying the Leafs don't play hard, but when I say hard, I mean that they play with intensity, the Leafs lack intensity.  This Leaf's team uses speed and skill to win, they do not hit, and I think intensity is not just about hitting but more about making it hard on your opponents.  The Leafs did not come out and play harder than Montreal in games 5, 6 or 7, and that is why they lost.  The Leafs had three chances to eliminate the Canadiens and each chance they failed to match or beat Montreal's effort level.

The end-of-season interviews confirmed that the organization will not make any changes regarding the top four.  The Leaf's top four are made up of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares.  The Leaf's top four take up almost 50% of the Leaf's salary cap and that means the remaining roster is filled out with a lot of players making a lot less and you have to shop in the discount store for players.  Only one of those players had a good series, William Nylander was fantastic in the series against Montreal.  John Tavares was hurt in the first period of game 1 and he never returned to play in the series.  Auston Matthews was okay, but the leading goal scorer of the season only managed one goal in seven games.  Mitch Marner probably had the worst series of all the Leafs, he looked lost and was generally ineffective.  Marner looked as if the pressure of possibly failing yet again was causing him to second guess his instincts.  Another problem that has caused the issue with Matthews and Marner was ice time.  The Leaf's coach Sheldon Keefe was using Matthews and Marner too much and in too many situations.  I think when Tavares went down it threw a wrench in Keefe's game plan for the series, he started to rely on Matthews and Marner more and more as the series went on.  Keefe should have relied on his other forwards more, but he believed in Matthews and Marner.  It has been made clear by Brendan Shanahan that Keefe will return next season as head coach, I wish he gave that some more thought.  Keefe was outcoached in the series, he failed to get the power play going, he failed to try and get better line matchups and he failed to adjust his offensive gameplan to counteract what Montreal was doing defensively.


I am not sure Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have a plan as of yet, they need to evaluate the series in more detail and figure out what they think the team needs to push them over the hump.  One thing that Shanahan mentioned was that he thought the team lacked a killer instinct, that is something that Shanahan brought to Detroit, and it led to some championships.  Killer instinct to me is the ability to keep your opponent down and not let them back up, it is that you never take your foot off the gas.  An analyst pointed out that Montreal took the fun out of the Leaf's lineup, and that was a good point.  In games 5, 6, and 7 Montreal was able to come out and take control of the game, and the Leafs were playing desperate.  I am not sure which player fits the killer instinct label, but the Leafs will have to find one who comes cheap or is willing to take a pay cut to play for the Leafs.  The Leafs could also use some confidence, they need to add some players that never lack confidence, in game 7 the Leafs looked like they already lost, and they could use some players who will not doubt their skill.  The challenge will be filling out the roster with players that will help win a Stanley Cup, in a salary cap world that has become a lot harder.  The Leafs have invested too much into four players, and that means they don't have the salary cap room to sign elite or even major talent.  The Leaf's last offseason was spent fixing the roster after the Columbus letdown, the Leafs used what little cap room they had on TJ Brodie who was amazing last season.  The other pieces they added were veteran players making a lot less and some players who have yet to establish themselves.  I, unfortunately, believe that the Leafs will have another off-season shopping in the bargain aisle of free agency.

The Leafs have several free agents, an upcoming expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken, and possibly some trades to make.  Kyle Dubas was asked about his plans for signing free agents and if the expansion draft will cause him to wait until after the expansion draft.  Dubas said something interesting, he said it would not affect his plans, to me that says he already has a plan for who Seattle will take.  Maybe Dubas has already worked out a deal where the Kraken will take a player the Leafs want them to take and sweeten the deal with a draft pick.  The Leafs only have six draft picks for the next two, Montreal has 18 picks over the next two years.  The Leaf's lack of draft picks will also hinder their attempts to improve the team via the trade route.  I feel like I am being a bit of a buzzkill, but I am trying to temper expectations for what the Leafs will do in the off-season.  Since Seth Jones, a defenseman for Columbus announced his intention to not sign a contract extension, Mitch Marner's name has come up in a player for player trade.  I like Seth Jones a lot, after the Columbus series I thought Toronto could use Seth or his defense partner Zach Werenski.  I don't think Seth Jones is better than Marner, Marner is younger and signed for a longer term.  Shanahan and Dubas were clear that the core four are not going anywhere so a trade for another elite player will be very hard to accomplish with no draft picks and little cap space.  


One of the biggest things about the game 7 loss that bothered me was the lack of emotion from the Leafs during the game and after.  During the game, the players looked slow, tired and panicked. After the game the players seemed just sad, I wished I saw some anger from the players some kind of fight.  I am not alone in that sentiment; a pundit also said the same thing that he wished at least one of the Leafs was angry.  The Leafs seemed to accept their fate too easily as if that is what they were expecting to happen, failure.  They need to add players with a lot of confidence, a very competitive nature, and someone who plays the game with intensity.  I am not sure who fits that description, but that is the type of players this lineup was obviously sorely lacking.  I want a player who will push the other players to be feistier, and who will smash his stick after a bad loss.  The Leafs lost one of the core four in game 1 (Tavares) and did not have Jake Muzzin (defensemen) for game seven.  Those two losses definitely hurt, but the loss was still inexcusable.  Sheldon Keefe hopefully will have learned some lessons too, hopefully, one of them will be not overplaying your best players.  Another lesson Keefe needs to learn is to make adjustments, if Montreal is preventing your offence from setting up in your preferred style, then adopt a different style.  Keefe's lack of interest in making adjustments to the offensive game plan was another reason the Leafs lost the series.  There is still reason to be hopeful, the loss should propel the players to not let it happen again, and that three of the core four are still young and getting better.  Matthews (23 years old), Marner (24 years old) and Nylander (25 years old) are young and still getting better so there is hope that next season they get better and next year ends with a Stanley Cup victory.  

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