A lot of ink has been spilled about the Toronto Maple Leafs since the team blew a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2021 playoffs: What went wrong? Who is to blame? What could have been if they scored in overtime in Game 5 or Game 6?

There is only one question that matters at this point, though: Now what?

This is the fifth-straight season in which the Leafs lost out in the first round, and while it was easy to believe better days were ahead of them after a number of those early exits (the roster was young, their opponents were elite, you could blame their goaltending, etc.), there isn’t much solace to take in this year’s outcome.

In the first few years, the Leafs fell to elite teams in tight series battles, but in the last two seasons, they’ve fallen short against opponents they really should have been able to beat. This year, in particular, was a go-for-it year for the Leafs, and the team wasn’t even able to get its wheels off the runway for a proper run.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Fans have understandably hit their limit and the calls for change and/or firings have been boisterous. More than ever, this is when the Leafs need to be careful.

Teams do not traditionally win trades in which they move a 24-year-old who is coming off of three straight seasons of producing at a 90+ point pace. The old saying, “Whoever gets the best player wins the trade,” often rings true. Unless the team is acquiring a legitimate, established star in return, there isn’t much worth talking about here.

At the same time, the organization has to tread carefully in its messaging, too. Amidst a fifth-straight year of losing out in the first round, it’s a little insulting to the fans if they sing the same old tune about learning from failures.

It was tough to hear Mitch Marner dismiss a question about preparing differently for the playoffs next year, and Sheldon Keefe note that he wouldn’t change much when it came to minutes or matchups in the series against Montreal. You can get away with those types of things in the first few years, but not after the fifth consecutive year ending in a first-round exit.

Reflecting on the series, three things stand out:

  1. Game 4 was one of the best playoff games the team has played over this five-year run – the game was essentially never in doubt. The Leafs cruised to a 4-0 win, even if they did take their foot off the peddle a little in the third.
    The team then changed its lineup for Game 5 — notably, the coaching staff swapped Travis Dermott for Rasmus Sandin, who committed two giveaways leading directly to Montreal goals.
    It felt like a move made by a coaching staff that thought it was playing with house money. Continuing to dress a winning lineup can be a cliché, but in this case, there was no reason to break up a winning lineup coming off of such a strong performance. It ended up giving the Habs life. The Leafs handed them three goals in that game, even if they did valiantly storm back to tie it later on.
  2. Game 6 was, without question, the Leafs’ worst 40 minutes of the season to start a game. It was probably the most concerning development in the series. There has been a lot of talk about Carey Price’s performance — and this isn’t to take anything away from him — but in Game 5, the Leafs scored three goals, which should be enough to beat Montreal.
    In Game 6, Price didn’t have to do very much through two periods. The Leafs got handily outplayed. Shot attempts after two periods were 42-24 in favour of the Habs.
    The Leafs went down 3-0 in Game 5 and responded by getting handily outplayed through 40+ minutes of Game 6. That cannot be explained away by the bounces or the other team’s goalie.
  3. The team simply looked nervous in Game 7. They went 7-2-1 against Montreal in the regular season, were playing at home, and had a third kick at the can to close out the series — yet the lack of confidence was evident from puck drop.
    It reminded me of a line from The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: “When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice: Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”

It is fair for the Leafs to stand behind their top guns — and even for them to justify bringing them back for another go at it. At this point, I’m taking Kyle Dubas’ comments at face value in terms of his commitment to the Leafs’ top four — in part due to Elliotte Friedman confirming Dubas’ steadfast belief in them on the MLHS podcast.

I see some merit in both sides of the argument here, and while it’s a complex issue to cover in a sentence or two, I think it would be difficult to win any trade in which the Leafs move a young star. I also think it would be next to impossible to move John Tavares, who is armed with a no-movement clause, is the captain of the team, and is from Toronto.

Is it possible the decision about the core four could swing the other way this offseason? Sure, but it’s not likely.

That leaves all of us asking, “Now what?”

The top four likely returning doesn’t mean changes can’t be made to not only better support them but to actually help elevate their games — in part by not gassing Marner and Matthews with such a massive workload.

This is now multiple years in a row where the opposition has been able to neutralize the Leafs’ top weapons come playoff time — and the coaching staff’s only solution was to play them more.

They have to find a balance. The Leafs are looking ahead to a return to their regular Atlantic Division that includes an elite Tampa Bay team, two very good teams in Boston and Florida, and they will still have to deal with the Montreal Canadiens.

If you told me even two months ago that Toronto would lose out in round one, I’d assume someone was going to lose their job over it, but it appears as though cooler heads have prevailed for the time being. I’m almost certain that the same will not be said this time next year should history repeat itself for a sixth straight season.

The Leafs need to find the right formula, and they have their work cut out for them. Let’s dive deeper into it.

Forward depth, minutes share, and the Leafs’ cap allocation

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs bench
Photo: John Woods/Canadian Press

By the time the Leafs were eliminated, many were asking reasonable questions about why Matthews and Marner were seemingly attached at the hip, with the coaching staff so unwilling to split them up in the name of trying something new — a theme throughout the entire season.

I was curious about this question in relation to other top teams (at 5v5). Every team, at minimum, likes to use center-winger combos with the other wing spot open for a rotation of players. The Leafs did this as well — options like Thornton, Hyman, Galchenyuk, and Foligno all received extended looks alongside Matthews and Marner.

When it comes to Matthews and Marner playing together, their shared ice time was massive this season — they play so many minutes, and they were generally healthy all year. Their time apart was pretty similar to how many other of the league’s big combinations are deployed, but considering Marner and Matthews both play so much, in terms of their percentage of total time divided by time apart, it’s fair to wonder if those minutes should be spread out a little further away from each other.

PlayersTogetherWinger apart from Center
Marner with Matthews806:1080:43
Rantanen with MacKinnon587:1273:10
Wheeler with Scheifele545:12283:10
Stone with Stephenson620:1972:40
Marchand with Bergeron592:4882:58
Eberle with Barzal581:00158:43
Svechnikov with Aho396:49356:25
Gallagher with Danault334:04104:28
Palat with Point658:0773:10

As noted, the Leafs’ star players play fairly similar minutes together compared to other top-line combinations around the league. It’s not unreasonable for a coaching staff to play really good players together, especially when they produce as well as Matthews and Marner.

Where the situation gets trickier in the Leafs’ case is their distribution of cap dollars and overall quality throughout their forward group.

I decided to break down the final eight teams’ spending on their forward groups and each of their forward lines. As a heads up, the combined salary of the four lines will not add up to the total cap hit — players that are healthy scratched are not included (this is particularly notable with the Islanders and Travis Zajac, for example).

TeamFwd total cap hitL1L2L3L4
Tampa Bay59,092,59021.617.87.76.6
NY Islanders55,354,55815.513.18.28.4

Please note: I generally used the original lineups these teams were icing in the first game of the playoffs when most clubs were healthy. For teams like Vegas (Pacioretty injured), Montreal (who originally scratched KK and Caufield; Tatar is now a healthy scratch), and Winnipeg (Ehlers injured), I used common sense and configured the lines based on those teams’ healthy lineups. If a player’s cap hit was reduced by retention — such was the case with Nick Foligno — I used the reduced cap-hit number.

A few other items to get out of the way before we continue: The Habs’ top-line number is a little misleading. Generally speaking, Tomas Tatar plays there, and he makes 4.8M. You could add 2.4M to that number, and then it’s closer to on par with the other top lines. Similarly, Gallagher is making 3.75M this season before a $6.5M extension kicks in next year, and Phillip Danault is a pending UFA who is likely to receive a raise on his $3.083M salary.

The Leafs’ third-line cap hit is as high as it is because I factored Riley Nash into the calculation – my thinking was that this is what the Leafs originally planned to do at the start of the playoffs. While I think Pierre Engvall would have entered the lineup either way, it didn’t feel right to deviate from the original plan.

Nash makes $2.75M, but if you used Engvall there instead, the line suddenly drops to $6.3M, which is one of the lowest among these eight teams. It would be near the bottom of the group when we consider that just over 500K of Mattias Janmark’s $2.25M counts against Vegas’ cap. In Winnipeg, Lowry is already making more on an extension that starts next year, and Andrew Copp is an RFA who is in line for a raise.

This has been a roundabout way of confirming all of our suspicions: The Leafs spend more than anyone on their top six and less than pretty well everyone on their bottom six.

The implications are notable – when the Leafs sustain injuries at the top of their lineup, they struggle to fill gaps, their top players log heavy minutes, and despite experimenting with a number of combinations, their bottom-six lines were outscored unless Zach Hyman was playing on one of the units (or if you include the Thornton – Brooks – Spezza line that was put together at the end of the season).

The mention of Adam Brooks is also noteworthy in that he was one of the only Leafs players to play on an Entry Level Contract (ELC) this past season. Of the playoff forward lineups I analyzed, only the Leafs, Jets, and Bruins did not include a player on an ELC.

Couple this with the Leafs’ lack of notable players on bargain contracts relative to their market value, and it perpetually leaves the franchise with little money to fill out its roster. The Leafs need to find players who can outperform their contracts by — generally speaking, in the case of the third and fourth lines — millions of dollars.

It’s no coincidence that a legitimate top-six player such as Hyman joining the third line instantly made it a credible threat and changed the whole dynamic of the Leafs’ lineup. When the Leafs were able to run with it this setup, they were a better team. When they weren’t, the only player of note in the bottom six who could consistently move the needle and impact games offensively was Jason Spezza.

Compounding matters further is the flat salary cap. The hope when the Leafs signed their big deals was that the contracts would look better with age (and the Nylander and Matthews deals absolutely have aged well, to be clear) and that the cap would continue to rise, giving them a little extra wiggle room to bolster the depth each year. That will not be the case for the Leafs moving forward due to the league’s economics.

Does it mean that they need to trade a big contract in order to free up the money to bolster their depth, though? Not necessarily.

The Leafs need some legitimate production from ELC players. On our podcast after the Leafs’ playoff exit, Elliotte Friedman suggested the team wants to give Nick Robertson a real shot next year — potentially in a top-six role to start the year to see how he performs.

While Adam Brooks is not technically on an ELC, it’s actually to the Leafs’ benefit that he isn’t — he’s making less than his ELC rate. A player such as Joey Anderson, who the team acquired for Andreas Johnsson in a one-for-one deal, is in a similar boat. Can he make the team and give the Leafs a lift on a bottom-two line?

Could a prospect like Rodion Amirov surprise?

These are all big question marks, and it would be unreasonable for the Leafs to bank on multiple of them coming through, but with any sort of sustained contribution from one or more players on ELCs (this includes Sandin), suddenly the Leafs can throw more money at better players to fill out their roster.

Failing that — and even if it works, frankly — the Leafs should at least contemplate and experiment with spreading out their talent. The combinations are endless, but they could quite easily keep a star winger alongside Matthews, leave Tavares to carry his line, and expect the other star winger to carry another line.

When Tavares went down hurt in the playoffs, Nylander drove a line alongside Alex Kerfoot and Alex Galchenyuk. Kerfoot struggled the entire regular season unless he was in the top six, and Galchenyuk was out of the league (playing in his first-ever AHL stint) at one stage. Those two weren’t exactly in the midst of huge seasons, but Nylander wasn’t merely fitting in alongside them. He drove the line.

All four of the Leafs’ top players are capable of carrying a line (and possibly five should Hyman be retained — more on him in a future article). That gives the team extra depth in the form of a third line of consequence. It also preserves the Leafs’ stars a bit more throughout the season and playoffs (they appeared gassed two years running now).

A luxury the final eight teams all have in common: A good player who is paid considerable money to play on the third line – Tampa has Yanni Gourde on their third unit, the Hurricanes used Jordan Staal there, Vegas has Alex Tuch, and the Islanders might use JG Pageau or Brock Nelson there in any given game.

Colorado used Brandon Saad down the lineup, the Habs play Josh Anderson on their third line, and Charlie Coyle played this role when Boston went to the Cup a few years ago (he’s still there now, but he has really struggled of late).

These are notable players with big cap hits who are generally a tier above the talent the Leafs are trotting out on their third line. When Zach Hyman was there, Toronto’s lineup had a deeper feel, but when he wasn’t, many of these teams’ fourth lines were better than the Leafs’ third.

The Leafs likely do not have the cap space to add a really good forward to anchor their third line, but they have four really good forwards that they could spread out a little bit more along with enough depth of talent elsewhere to set the team up for success.

None of the clubs in the final four have a single forward averaging even 20 minutes per game. Matthews and Marner averaged just under 24 and 25 minutes, respectively, in the first round. The Leafs have to find ways to reduce their minutes with the goal of getting more out of them in the process.

It’s too difficult to ask Matthews and Marner to play more than other team’s stars night after night, against deeper rosters that contain good third and fourth lines, and expect them to lead the team on a long playoff run.