The coroner has returned. And who else would be in the office than an all-too-familiar face?
The skinny: It happened again. All of Toronto sensed it was coming after they failed to close the series against Montreal out in Game 5, but it didn’t make the seemingly inevitable outcome any easier to swallow. As if reprising a common theme, the Canadiens roared back from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the heavily-favored Maple Leafs.
Toronto fans can be forgiven for feeling like this franchise has been cursed, as if the hockey gods are still punishing them for the miserly reign of Harold Ballard decades ago. This was the year, of all years, that things were supposed to be different. The Leafs had run through the North Division like a hot knife through butter, were finally decent on the back end and in net, and had a devastating powerplay led by their big four forwards. How did it all end up in yet another first-round exit? There’s a few reasons to point to…
Matthews and Marner: Auston Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy this season for scoring the most goals during the regular season, playing a major role in Toronto’s overall success. His linemate Mitch Marner finished fourth in the entire NHL in total points. Unfortunately, the big duo struggled to get anything going this series, combining to score only one goal in all seven games. Their struggles were only compounded by the injury to John Tavares in Game 1, leaving an inconsistency for Toronto to produce anything offensively. William Nylander and even Jason Spezza tried to pick up the slack with eight goals between them, but it was far from enough.
Failure to close: The Leafs had three straight opportunities to get that fourth win this series, and failed every single time. They didn’t hold a lead at any point in the final three games and, while they did manage to push Games 5 and 6 to overtime, they lost both. The worst part about all of this is that this has become a habitual instance for the Leafs. It’s the second time in the last four years the Leafs have blown a series lead (3-2 against Boston in 2019). They have gone 0-7 in series-clinching games in that span. A nice segue for the final reason…
Reputation: This may be a cop-out to some people, but can anyone deny the possibility of the Leafs cracking under the pressure yet again? It seems the team is caught in a vicious cycle: they’re considered one of the top teams in the league at the start of the season, play relatively well during the regular season, and then collapse at key moments in the postseason. This is the fifth straight year the Leafs have made the playoffs, and the fifth straight year they’ve fallen in the first round (if you count last year’s qualifying round, at least). Toronto hasn’t even made it beyond the first round since 2004. It’s one of the most disastrous playoff performances from any team in any sport, and the label of ‘playoff underachievers’ only received yet another underline this postseason.
The crystal ball: With the best opportunity for the Leafs to advance in the postseason squandered, it’s time to ask very serious questions about this core. It feels like the Sheldon Keefe-Kyle Dubas-Brendan Shanahan regime will receive at least one more try to make things right, but results have to be shown at some point. All three came into their respective positions of coach, general manager, and team president with promise and an approach that appeared to promise success in the short and long term. A third year of little to no change, however, could lead to a further sense of desperation and send at least one, and likely multiple, of the three out the door.
As far as changes to the roster go, that’s going to be a little tricky to figure out. Toronto’s rentals like Nick Foligno and David Rittich will likely find work elsewhere, and unrestricted free agents Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen might not be asked back due to Toronto’s cap crunch. Their cap situation might get a little better if Seattle selects Alexander Kerfoot in the Expansion Draft and removing his $3.5 million cap hit from the books, but that’s still only temporary relief. The Leafs will also be tied to a good chunk of the trade targets this offseason, with some reports already connecting them to San Jose’s Evander Kane for grit and scoring depth. The only problem is that Toronto only has three picks each in this and next year’s drafts, so any trade will ensure Toronto has to deplete its farm system to some degree. Changes are coming, but will they lead to more problems than the Leafs already have?