It happened again.
The Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 7 and have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the opening round for the sixth straight season. They have now been in seven playoffs without winning a round, and amazingly, they failed to win two more potential clinching games. The Leafs came within one goal in overtime from advancing for the second straight season, and despite another year of staggering achievements in the regular season and great moments from the stars, the team is back at square one: a playoff loser.
The reaction from the fan base has been varied. Some want to see everything change because they can’t be hurt by this group again. Others want to see nothing change because the team was so close against the two-time defending champions. Others see it as a sign of a permanent curse, while others want to diagnose the problems and believe they are fixable. There is no right answer on how to feel now, and between all the varied reactions, there is a little bit of truth in each.
Winning is the ultimate bottom line in sports. We can wax poetic about the soft side of sports, the memories and connections and the good stuff it brings us, or the virtues and benefits that come from playing sports ourselves at a non-competitive level. But at a level like the NHL, the only thing that any one cares about is winning. It’s the elixir that cleanses the sports fan’s soul, and can erase so much pain from the past. The fact of the matter is that when you don’t win, when you can’t pull out a playoff series victory at least one time in nearly two decades, every other argument becomes somewhat irrelevant.
This is the root of the fan who right now would like to see Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe pink slipped and who would like several core players shipped off for pennies on the dollar. They probably know it’s not necessarily a logical or productive solution deep down, but they want to watch a house go up in flames just to feel something for once. Coating your hands in blood and cackling about the prospect of getting vengeance on those who have hurt you has some redeeming qualities, even if the fulfillment provided will inevitably run dry in a hurry.
It’s like when you’re trying to meet a friend for dinner who you haven’t seen in awhile. You’re really excited and have picked out a time and place. Then the friend cancels because they got sick. You understand, and move the dinner to another day. Then that day comes, and the friend cancels because their grandma fell down a flight of stairs and needs assistance. Again, you understand, and the plans change again. The third time meeting date comes, and the friend cancels because their infant child is refusing to sleep and they are dead tired. In the abstract, are all these instances legitimate, forgivable reasons to cancel dinner on your friend? Of course. But when it happens over and over again, each time for a different frustrating reason, at some point you want to tell your friend to forget it, cancel the whole idea, and overturn the dinner table and break some glass, just to gain a little satisfaction from the painful saga.
That’s where one faction of Leafs fans are. And feeling that way is understandable. Every reason why the Leafs have lost a playoff series in the Matthews/Marner era is somewhat justifiable. They’ve faced great teams, hot goalies, and underdog teams at the start of improbable Stanley Cup Finals runs. Taken in isolated instances, it makes sense. Altogether, it makes you want to throw things and get revenge on the stupid team breaking your heart. When the list of excuses why it didn’t happen this year runs longer than a grocery list after six seasons, white hot rage is natural.
So write your tweets, your Facebook comments. Call in to a talk radio station and tell them how you would trade William Nylander for a 25-year-old Wendel Clark in a heartbeat, or say that if the Leafs had 1999 Lonny Bohonos on John Tavares’ wing instead of Alex Kerfoot, then this time it would be different. It’s not a healthy headspace to be in all the time, but for this week, get it all out.
And if it isn’t all out, then hold yourself back. Don’t invest in next year’s team until the playoffs, or maybe don’t until they win a playoff series. Winning is all that matters, and six years later, despite all the justifiable reasons, nothing of substance in the playoff has happened. The team has undeniably improved, yet the fan base is still stuck in this prison. So if you’re that person who just can’t be bothered with another excuse or a soliloquy about randomness in sports, I get it. For right now, be angry. Because it sucks.
When things happen that we don’t like, it is human nature to want an explanation. Most of the time, there’s a simplistic explanation. The pain you feel is because you touched a hot pan without a baking glove. Or you stepped on a nail without wearing shoes. Or you slipped on an icy sidewalk and scraped your arm on the pavement.
In other contexts, it’s not so simple. Sports is one of those contexts. You watch your favorite team lose and you want to know why it happened to you again. You search for a simple answer and I will admit, there are times that it’s there. If you just watched your team’s goalie allow two soft goals in a game seven, you can blame the goalie and move on. Or if your star forwards go scoreless over a seven-game series, they become the scapegoats.
But what if your team is really good, they play a good game or series, and still come up short? That’s where people like me are supposed to come in. The sports analysts and “experts,” some of whom are self-avowed fans and others who operate under the guise of nonpartisanship, are brought in because we are supposed to know the answers.
The truth is that we don’t. In an ultra-close and extremely even series, there are many “answers” as to why one team won that could be held up as clear evidence. But none provide the whole answer. Many sports analysts take the easy way out. They come up with worn out cliches to explain why when one team’s shot narrowly tucks itself under the crossbar it’s because they “Have The Heart Of A Champion” and “Just Know How To Win” and when the other team’s shot instead glances off the crossbar, it’s because they are “Chokers” or have a “Loser Mentality.” Chalking up a difference of mere centimeters to cheesy superlatives is enough to sing dim-witted sports fans to sleep, but I pride myself on trying to dig deeper than that.
So when you ask me why, after another incredibly tight series, with two more potential clinching games, the Toronto Maple Leafs could not advance to the second round, I don’t have a coherent answer. I have nits to pick and can highlight tiny things that if done differently, might have made a difference. But there really isn’t a clear narrative this time around. All the little things that haunted the Leafs in the past (stars not showing up, goalies giving up devastating goals, coming out flat in Game 7, etc) didn’t happen this time, yet the team is still haunted.
Out of this thought process comes a feeling of despair. That most things that needed to go right indeed went right, but the team still lost. What few are willing to admit is that many developments in the course of a hockey game are because of luck and randomness. That the Leafs may have lost the series because Cal Foote’s flop on David Kämpf’s high stick happened to fool the officials. Or they lost the series because the velocity and angle that Ross Colton shot the puck produced the perfect rebound for Nick Paul on Tampa’s opening goal, and that’s all it really took.
People would like to believe that these small flashpoint moments happened because one team cares about winning more or there is a grand refereeing conspiracy, but I would argue that many things happen for no reason at all. They just happen. The puck bounces and we chase the deeper meaning of why it bounced the way it did, when in actuality there is no deeper meaning. It just bounces. The dice were rolled and for what feels like the zillionth season in a row, they did not roll the way of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A tight hockey series with razor thin margins is often decided by a bad bounce here or a controversial call there. Most fan bases know that well, because they’ve been on the winning and losing side of the breaks inherent to the game. Leafs fans are one of the only groups of people in the NHL who don’t know this, because the breaks haven’t gone their way since Paul Martin was Prime Minister and Patrick Lalime was whiffing on half-wall wristers from Joe Nieuwendyk in Game 7.
Probability tells us that losing five winner-take-all games in a row under this core is not impossible — it’s merely an event with an 0.0036% chance of happening. But when it happens to your team, it doesn’t feel like an extremely low probability event that managed to come true. Rather, it feels like some time 18 years ago, a Maple Leafs fan was walking under a ladder while opening an umbrella indoors that cracked a mirror which happened to be reflecting the image of a black cat and we are all now living with the consequences.
So I get the feeling of despair. That the franchise is irreparably cursed. That no matter how well they play, it will never be enough because something terrible will inevitably happen, and then there will be a new excuse du jour. That this team will not win unless their sweaters are changed and the team is relocated somewhere far away where the fans have never heard the name “Harold Ballard.” Hopelessness is understandable, but perhaps it is blunted by the stories of the other teams who were once cursed… until they weren’t. Of course, that’s what Leafs fans told themselves last year, and this year before the weekend. Now, it may fall on deaf ears.
For some folks, when the pain strikes again, the solution is not to break things or throw up your hands in defeat but to focus on what caused that feeling. Diagnosing what can be changed and hunting for ways to improve. This tends to be where I fall. It is possible to acknowledge that this Leafs team was good enough to do something special and didn’t because of a convergence of 15 factors that are mostly random bad luck that make you so angry that you want to punish the players responsible, but also recognize that this Leafs team could be better. Improvement is always possible, and in my opinion, giving up hope (unless you emotionally cannot take it anymore) is not the right answer. Continuing to slowly tweak and tinker with the mold is the best path forward, until the day when the dice roll your way.
The 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs were an undeniably great team. They also lost to an undeniably great team. Looking at the Lightning in the mirror can provide some answers on how to improve moving forward. The power play was not good enough for Toronto, just like so many of the previous playoffs. Whether Morgan Rielly is fit to play the point on that unit seems to still be an open question to me. Depth pieces Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, and Alex Kerfoot combined for one goal (excepting empty netters), while Tampa’s depth pieces Ross Colton, Nick Paul, and Corey Perry each scored two or more goals. The Leafs did not put enough pucks on net in Game 7, and looked for the extra pass far too often, even though it was frequently not available.
These are all issues that management can look at. The team has a salary cap crunch, but they can move pieces around and modify the formula. Would I trade a “core” piece? I would always field trade calls, but given that John Tavares is not likely to waive his no move clause and Morgan Rielly just signed his extension, nothing advantageous is likely to appear. The front office put together an impressive offseason last summer that helped lay the pieces for a record-breaking season, unearthing bargain bin additions like Kämpf and Michael Bunting who greatly helped the team. They’ll need to do so again while navigating several tricky decisions.
As for the management itself, I would not move on from Kyle Dubas as GM. He has made the roster significantly better over the past four seasons, even if that agonizing end result hasn’t changed. The defensive corps the Maple Leafs had in 2017-18 was a joke. The group they had this season and last are very solid. That, plus the ability to draft competently and keep a solid prospect pool together despite few high draft picks, means he should stay on. The greatest failing of the Maple Leafs from 2014-17 was their inability to draft beyond the first round and internally build the roster needed to surround their core. The people responsible for those drafts are gone and it would be a massive mistake to move on from a new management group who has shown the ability to rectify those mistakes.
For Sheldon Keefe, I had my issues, including the refusal to try out Marner-Tavares and Nylander-Matthews more extensively, but I don’t see that as a hanging offense yet. The extent to which they tried out different defense pairs was a welcome sight, but there needs to be more work on the power play when the playoffs come. They start the season with fresh new ideas that somehow become stale by the spring. That is something that must be improved.
People in the rage category will ask at what point it comes time to blow it all up. I would be in favor of making bigger changes if the playoffs had looked like 2020 or 2021. If there was a star who is clearly not performing in the playoffs, then you’d have to look at making a change. But when everyone plays well but it just wasn’t quite enough, then you keep the pillars together, and continue to make some alterations around the edges. Again, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick up the phone, but I’m not burning to do something brash because most of the time, brash means foolish. And if you’re trading a piece like a Mitch Marner for future assets, nine times out of 10 you would lose that deal.
If nothing else, I think these playoffs sent the message that the Leafs need to play to win the division next season. If they hadn’t punted games to Buffalo, Montreal, and Arizona, they might’ve been able to win the Atlantic and played Washington instead. Is that a guarantee they’d have won? No; just look at the Canadiens series last year. That, more than anything else, is the real indictment of this group (not this year). But playoff positioning does matter some, and the idea of saddling up and trying to win the Atlantic should be an objective, so maybe you draw a declining Caps team instead of Tampa.
Or maybe Tampa puts two more guys on LTIR and lurks in as a wild card and it doesn’t matter. The dice will have to roll the Leafs’ way at some point. But no matter where you are — rage, despair, or pragmatism — this isn’t quite the time to stop rolling the dice altogether. No matter how justifiably angry you may be.