On Monday night, the Toronto team suffered elimination in the first round of the playoffs for a fifth straight year. She also saw her famine without reaching the second round stretch to 17 years.
The representatives of the Queen City, however, seemed destined to defeat their demons this year. TJ Brodie, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian joined in the lineup during the offseason, then Nick Foligno, Riley Nash and David Rittich brought themselves to the trade deadline. The workforce seemed complete, combining experience, talent and robustness.
Stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner also reached new heights, finishing the regular season among the top five scorers in the National Hockey League (NHL). Matthews also became the first Leafs to win the Maurice-Richard Trophy, awarded to the season’s top scorer.
The team admittedly suffered in the absence of captain John Tavares, who missed the entire series after getting injured early in the first game. Nonetheless, Toronto proved it could do without him by winning three straight to take a 3-1 lead. All he needed was a victory. Only one.
Few believed that the case was in the bag. Caution was in order, many Leafs fans wrote on social media, obviously scarred by the failures of years past.
Foligno missed a few games, then Jake Muzzin got injured. This is not an excuse, but a simple fact. Toronto then came out flat, neglected by its young figureheads. Montreal finally completed the comeback, plunging the Toronto team and its supporters into the doldrums for another offseason.
We let this opportunity slip through our fingers. This is unacceptable by our standards. This defeat is even worse than what we’ve been through beforesaid Morgan Rielly, who has tasted every one of the Leafs’ playoff failures since 2017.
I don’t know how to explain this, it’s extremely frustrating.
And now, what to do?
Toronto has yet to advance to the second round of the playoffs since 2004.
Photo: The Canadian Press / Nathan Denette
On social media, the anger of Maple Leafs fans is palpable. Some are calling for general manager Kyle Dubas to be fired, others for head coach Sheldon Keefe and a few for both.
Forward Mitch Marner, who earns $ 10.9 million a season, is also apparently to be traded. He hasn’t found the back of the net in his last 18 playoff games. And, despite his excellent defensive play, he remains paid to terrorize opposing goalkeepers.
All these proposals are equal. Dubas is the one who gave $ 40.5 million to the team’s top four forwards, or half of the Maple Leafs’ payroll. Keefe failed to get the most out of his stars when the team needed them most. And, after shining in season, Marner disappeared in the playoffs.
What if they all got one last chance? Considering what they have accomplished during the season, the team can afford to try again. Important decisions will have to be made only in the summer of 2022 when Jack Campbell and Morgan Rielly will become free agents without compensation.
This summer, Frederik Andersen, from whom Campbell stole the starting goalie position, is in danger of leaving. That’s 5 million to maneuver with. Management’s priority will be to extend the agreement with forward Zach Hyman, who has been providing good and loyal service to the Leafs since 2015. And then, it will also be necessary to find new nuggets to support his stars.
The services of Jason Spezza will have to be retained, if he wants to try again with Toronto. He excelled despite being 37 years old and having limited playing time. In the case of Joe Thornton, it is less clear. If Nick Foligno wants to sign well below his market value, the Leafs will also have to bring him back.
In the end, the Queen City team can still draw inspiration from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s no secret that Dubas and the Toronto team wanted to dominate the regular season, as the Floridians have become accustomed to doing, in order to get ready for the playoffs. In 2018-19, Tampa pulverized the competition in season before being swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The following year, with a practically identical group, the team tried again to finally win the Stanley Cup.
Obviously, nothing is guaranteed in sport. The Maple Leafs could still disappoint next year, but whoever tries nothing has nothing, it is said. With Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander on the attack; Muzzin, Rielly, Brodie and Holl in defense; then Campbell between the posts, Toronto still has the means to win.