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Tick Tock

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The state of the Leafs and their timeline.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs-Workouts John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Dubas is not having a fun summer. Most of us aren’t having fun summers, I’d expect, but Kyle Dubas is having a particularly not-fun-summer because the team that he’s put his recent time and MLSE’s money into building got wrapped in a blanket and slowly smothered in Round Zero of the pandemic playoffs.

The loss to Columbus has already been dissected here and elsewhere, and given the dearth of other subjects it’ll continue to be, so I’ll settle on one point here: it’s not just that they lost. It’s that the Leafs lost without establishing a large gap in play quality against a team that’s gritty and defensive and well-structured, sure, but that probably isn’t a top-ten group in the NHL. And if the Leafs can’t definitively outplay that team, then they’re probably not a real contender.

Okay, but anyone can look like not-a-real-contender in five games. Five games in a plague, five games in a bubble after a layoff, five games where Joonas Korpisalo looked like he’d been possessed by the ghosts of Jack Plante and a brick wall rolled into one. Chalk it up to a fluke, and look big picture.

How good is this team, really?

Between November 20th, when Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach, and the suspension of play in March, the Leafs were fifth in expected goals in the NHL, as per NST. The teams ahead of them were Vegas, Tampa Bay, Montreal (ugh), and Colorado. If you want the sunniest possible outlook on the team, you point to that stretch and say those are the Leafs as designed and advertised. Those are the real, true, contender Leafs, and if we stay the course, we’ll see more of them and that’ll be nice.

If you want to rack up material for the pessimist’s side, you’d say: the Leafs probably look better by xG than they ought to, because they give up exceptionally dangerous chances, and that’s borne out by the fact their goals weren’t as good as their xG. They started to get worse as injuries hit their defence, and their struggles in the quasi-playoffs once Jake Muzzin got hurt would do little to change that perspective; injuries are also part of life in hockey, and it’s not impossible this was the healthiest the Leafs were ever going to be going into the postseason. Toronto’s power play has been good but not “best in the league” good (fifth in goals 5v4, twenty-first in the expected ones), and it seems to rely more and more on Auston Matthews to clobber shots with a one-timer everyone knows is coming. This is a team that played Cody Ceci in its top four in the playoffs with a healthy lineup on purpose. Yes, he was acquired in a salary dump, but they started G1 with a healthy defence group and this was what they did. I can’t even say the team was wrong to do it, either.

And you might say that, flawed though Mike Babcock was, the team he put up was composed of the same central cast that lingered in the top ten but not really the top five and never quite leapt to top-contender status. And you’d be justified in wondering: is this team really that great?

And I think you’d be justified in answering:

No.

Where Do We Go From Here?

They’re not bad, by any means. They’re above average. I don’t believe there’s any curse or mental frailty that dooms this team to lose elimination games until plagues and fascism bring about the end of western civilization (so like, I don’t know, two years?) This team can win a round.

The point, of course, is not to win a round. It’s to win a championship. If the Leafs are good enough to do that as constituted, then we all we have to do is relax and await another kick at the can. If not, then some pretty serious questions arise.

The Leafs are very good to outstanding on offence. They can make minor improvements—I think the power play can be better than this—but they’re pretty strong there, as well they ought to be. They are bad defensively, although they’ve made some improvements under Keefe that may endure. A little ironically, that offensive excellence may be the sign of their limits.

How much better can the Leafs get at scoring? A little, sure. But they’re already exceptional at it, at least most of the time. Are they likely to get even better? John Tavares is about to turn 30, and the question with him is not whether he’ll get better but how quickly he’ll get worse. William Nylander is 24, Mitch Marner is 23, and Auston Matthews is 22. Nylander and Marner are likely near their offensive peaks; if Matthews somehow has another big step in him from this season, that would probably make him the best hockey player in the world. A little growth from these already-great players is totally within the realm of possibility. Maybe more defensive improvement. But the reality is that the Leafs are already getting a lot of value from four players and they’re paying a hell of a lot for it.

And that’s the problem. If the Leafs aren’t good enough as it is, if their star scoring is essentially maxed out, or if the Leafs need either more balanced scoring or better collective defence, where is the improvement going to come from? Toronto has capped itself out paying for this team, and specifically four players on it. The salary cap is unlikely to take large jumps in the next couple of years, thanks to COVID-19’s devastation of league revenue. The Leafs do not have a strong prospect pool at present, and while you can hope for contributions from Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin, anticipating that either of them will radically improve the team next season is exceptionally optimistic.

If this team’s circumstances are too straitened to improve, then eventually the team will have no choice but to reallocate some significant salary. And that means what everyone expects: the team would have to trade William Nylander or Mitch Marner.

Two Roads

I wrote this mostly as a table-setting exercise for how I’m looking at the team over this offseason, and how I’ll judge the moves it makes. If we zoom out a bit, there are two possibilities.

a) This team is good enough that once Kyle Dubas finishes adjusting it this offseason, it will be a contender

or...

b) It’s not

Kyle Dubas is committed to this core and this vision of the team. He is not going to get infinite chances to win with it. As much as the cap constrains him, next season he has about as clean a run with it as he’s going to get. His chosen coach is installed and will get a training camp. He no longer has a significant RFA negotiation to worry about. He has no players on LTIR and no dead money other than the Phil Kessel retained salary that will remain with Toronto until 2076. If the team doesn’t win a round next year, Dubas’ job may be in jeopardy, and the core’s future definitely will be.

If the “we can and we will” Leafs are going to be more than a punchline about how they couldn’t and didn’t, the moves Dubas makes this summer will have to show it. Whatever combination of adding defence, adding toughness, adding supplementary scoring, adding whatever you like: this is it. It has to be enough to show something this time or there probably will not be a next time, not for this version of the franchise and maybe not for this general manager.

The Leafs are no longer just happy to be here and they no longer have an obvious scapegoat to explain away their struggles. So this is it, Kyle.

Tick tock.