The Toronto Maple Leafs could have won their series against the Montreal Canadiens. In fact, when one pulls apart the numbers, they probably should have won the series. Besides being the heavy statistical favourites going in, they got a shockingly strong share of the results across the seven games. They out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced their rivals. They had the Expected Goal edge at 5v5 in all seven games. Jack Campbell finished the series with a higher save percentage than Carey Price. Only six of 23 Leafs finished the series with a negative goal difference, and only two of them were worse than -1 (Zach Bogosian, -4, and Rasmus Sandin, -2).
Heck, they even outscored Montreal on the whole through the seven games, overpowering them 18-14 in the big picture. Including the season series, they didn’t lose a single game to them by more than one non-empty net goal, and had a record of 10-4-3. Like last year against Columbus, almost every sign points to them being the most likely team to win the series had it been shaken up and re-rolled, and winning it much more often than not if you did it a bunch of times.
Unlike last year against Columbus, though, it’s hard to say they “deserved” to win. Unlike the years before that, it’s hard to brush it off as making a few mistakes against equal or better opponents. I’m not a big fan of putting it down to a curse or a single scapegoat, either.
The central theme for this series, and frankly, this year? The Leafs got far too cute, all the way up and down the group, each in their own way. They collectively delivered enough to win the series more often than not, yet less than they could have, and that was enough to leave it up chance and burn them once again.
Mitch Marner, for example, got too cute. He’ll be the biggest individual player scapegoat through all this, and it’s not hard to see why. He averaged 24:43 of ice time per game and contributed four whole points. None of which were goals – for those, you have to go back to Game 1 of the 2019 playoffs to find his last postseason tally. In his career, he has as many playoff goals as he has puck-over-glass penalties, averaging one of each a year.
It’s a brutal run for a player expected to be a superstar, and perhaps the biggest problem is that he himself believes in the “hometown hero” prophecy that so many attached to him over the years. Once again, he spent an entire series forcing plays to live and die on his stick, keeping the puck out of the hands of teammates (particularly Auston Matthews) in the process, and the failure to do anything with it cost the team. It might cost him his time with the organization, depending on how the summer goes – a story for another piece.
But he’s not the only one who got too cute. The team, as a collective, did the same, often not “starting on time” as the tired, tired quote goes. Games 5 and 6 were particularly bad for it. In the former, with all the momentum in their hands, the team started the game looking like a group that saw a win as an inevitability, but couldn’t be bothered to go out and secure it. They pushed at the end, showing some sort of resilience to come back from 3-0, but an early mistake in overtime cost them that game. In Game 6, the same start repeated itself, including the supposed pressure of playing in front of 2500 fans. I get it, first time in 14 months and it’s a hostile environment – but you’re not the team with the season on the line. Nonetheless, history repeated itself – they wasted a ton of opportunity with half-baked efforts, made a furious rally at the end, left it to the destiny of OT again, and got burned.
On Monday, they weren’t quite as bad to open, but they still weren’t enough to be decidedly better, and they never did find their gear. They fumbled any and all momentum they had bought themselves with what Jason Spezza, one of the only bright lights of the series, called “quiet confidence”. Had they played even one of those first periods like a third period, you’d be reading a Leafs/Jets preview from me instead today.
Sheldon Keefe and the coaching staff got too cute as well. They saw a lot of these problems mentioned above and did little to address them. While Marner actively hurt the flow of games, they played him so much that he ended up being the team’s number two skater – not forward, skater – in average ice time, playing two minutes more per game than his regular season. William Nylander, the team’s best overall forward in the series, ranked seventh among skaters, fourth among forwards, and over six whole minutes behind Marner – the gap between the two about equal to the gap between Nylander and Pierre Engvall or Wayne Simmonds.
He had a baffling coaches challenge in Game Six, where he bet on a slight technicality on an already random rule (goaltender interference) working in his favour in a one-goal elimination game, which promptly led to a PK, another penalty, and an insurance goal against. The team gave a cold Riley Nash two games too many, picking defensive stability over offensive creativity in a series where they needed gamebreakers. They did little to shake up their powerplay as it struggled and the only lineup adjustment they seemed to have under their sleeve was to rotate their two #5 defencemen and hope that one of them would break out.
One step above, we get to Kyle Dubas. Back in April, as the clock sounded on the trade deadline, I published a recap that recieved a lot of negative feedback. In it, I surmised that Dubas and the Leafs had a “Comfort Food Deadline” – one where they focused too hard on heart and soul (Nick Foligno), shutdown defence (Nash), and fringe depth (Ben Hutton and David Rittich), rather than doubling down on their offensive ability (say, taking part in the Taylor Hall bargain bin blowout). But really, it could be stretched all the way back to the end of the bubble series, where Dubas hinted at creating a team with more character and leadership, and sought out names like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian to find that.
Obviously, some bad luck came into play with some of these transactions – Foligno and the latter three all suffered injury setbacks, for example, which kept them out of the lineup for some stretches and slowed them down as the season progressed. Not to mention, most of those players were good individual additions – particularly the offseason ones (and especially TJ Brodie, who proved to be a fantastic addition). But as a sum of all parts, the lack of consistency and the lack of speed began to show. Simmonds lost his hands after his injury, and as much as I love Joe Thornton, he didn’t contribute much outside of two regular-season hot streaks and I wonder a lot about his future. The deadline, though, is what really hurts. Foligno and Nash ultimately contributed less than nothing to the team in the end, slowing them down rather than augmenting them at the low cost of a 1st round pick, two 4th round picks, and a 6th round pick. Together, they provided zero goals, regular season or playoffs. The aforementioned Hall, on the other hand, has 11 goals and 19 points in 22 games with Boston, and completely revitalized their second line for just a second round pick.
The irony of this all is that, as the mainstream media, NHL executives, and more old-school fans begin to talk about how Dubas messed this all up and didn’t get enough character, defensive skill, and grit, is he gave them exactly what they wanted. The team was full of grit, physicality, leadership and experience, including players that personally eliminated the team last year, and it didn’t help anything. Kyle Dubas got cute and tried to build the premium, no-bad-contract version of a Toronto Media all star team – experience, grit, intangibles, and their golden boy winger deciding who gets to touch the puck – and has nothing to show for it now but the same heat from the same people, and a crater in his draft cupboard.
After five years of these catastrophic losses, each increasingly more heartbreaking than the last, what was once the most fun Leafs team I can remember has become one of the best of my lifetime theory, and the most frustrating in practice. A team with a Rocket Richard trophy winner, a Top 5 scorer, two other star forwards, their best, most flexible defensive corps in two decades, a $2 million goalie putting up elite numbers, and a staff that has found success at other levels shouldn’t have the issues they have. But here we are.
While all of those things together should be enough to go deep into the playoffs – or at least past the first round, it’s not getting done. It’s not getting done because you’ve got some players who flip from happy-go-lucky to hero-obsessed when the months change, some who are too confident in their own abilities to play with urgency, a coach who has won with creativity his entire career falling into old tropes and a sense of almost too much patience, and a manager who, as great of a modern-day boss as he shows himself to be and as creative as he can get, deviated too hard from his own process and program to try to win like everyone else.
The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t like everyone else. The history is different, the echo chamber is different, the pressure is different, and even if you want to stick to the non-rhetoricals, the resources – be it star players, amenities, staff budget, or anything in between are different. As loud as the media can be, they’re one of the only sports teams on the planet that are so big that they have no real need to conform to their pressures. No group in hockey is better situated to ignore noise and conformity and carve their own path. Five years ago, it looked like they had the pieces and willingness to do so, but with each year, it’s moved more and more to nothing more than a premium version of the status quo.
When you go down that route, you set yourself up to fail. Individuals that ignore the team get stranded. Teams that get too confident fall too far behind in the race. Organizations that try to please all their critics and match perfectly with all of their opponents end up with no identity and little time dictating the storyline of their battles. When everyone gets cute, the odds of success lessen, more is left to chance, and even the most guaranteed of outcomes become jeopardized, and then, when everyone is in too deep, demolished.
The Leafs did enough to win that series from a hockey sense, and lost. But because Leafs got cute and didn’t do enough to be their best selves, from top to bottom, they got what they deserved.