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PPP Roundtable: How we’re feeling right now about the Leafs

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It’s not me, it’s you, Leafs. It really is you.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Seven
The people you let down. Yes that’s mean. And deserved.
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

We’ve taken some time to feel what we feel about the way the Maple Leafs lost this first-round series, and we’ve had a chance to digest the words of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe. So what do we think about this team right now.

Reading the tea leaves of the Dubas and Shanahan interviews, it seems like the plan is to turf some assistant coaches, fill in around the margins of the team with the cheapest signings they can find, re-sign Jason Spezza, find a goalie to mentor Jack Campbell and then run it back out there, same as it ever was.

Do you think they were misdirecting and some big change will come?

Fulemin: I think circumstances can change...but I actually suspect they meant what they said. Kyle Dubas is capable of spinning when the job requires it, and Shanahan has become an adept corporate speaker, but I think they really do believe in this core. This is the ship that they will sail or sink with. This is their team and they like it that way.

Arvind: I could be wrong, but I don’t expect any of the Leafs star forwards to be traded. Dubas has now publicly tied himself to this core and style of team building a couple of times. And the team is quite constrained in what they can do. Matthews and Tavares are obviously going nowhere. Trading Nylander makes no sense, as the cheapest of our star forwards. That leaves Marner, as discussed a lot both here and elsewhere. Selling on him now is the definition of selling low, and I think Dubas believes in him tremendously.

I’m reminded of something I saw Eric Tulsky say once. NHL teams, almost by definition, tend to acquire players that they view as slightly better than the rest of the league does. That’s why they acquire them. I feel that Dubas thinks this set of players is better than the rest of the league. In an environment where Marner’s trade value is diminished, even a little, I don’t see him pulling the trigger on a trade. To some extent, Dubas has simply committed to this group (and in particular, to Marner and Matthews via the financial commitment made to them as RFAs). My impression is that in his mind, lack of offensive generation from them in the back half of the series is an issue and troubling, but there isn’t too much to do about that helps the team besides hope it doesn’t happen again.

I do think it’s possible Morgan Rielly gets traded, and I could see that working out better than expected for the Leafs. As much as I love Rielly and respect his tremendous offensive capabilities, I want no part of his next deal. If you’re looking to shift things around, I could see Dubas betting that Sandin can replace the majority of those Rielly minutes and using the extra money elsewhere.

Brigstew: I don’t think Dubas will ever make a big move for the sake of it, but I think he will explore it. If there’s a team that buys into the hype that Marner and his camp sell about him, and have the cap space to work with, and like that Marner’s actual salary will be less than his cap hit going forward, and have assets to give that Dubas thinks will make it worthwhile, I think he’ll do it. But I’d lay low odds on that.

Hardev: I don’t think they’ve opened Schrodinger’s box one way or the other. Shanahan said pretty clearly that the depth, defense, goaltending wasn’t the issue. That very obviously leaves the core, and as we’ve discussed, that means Mitch Marner. That can either mean a trade or internal growth.

Dubas wouldn’t publicly slander his two best players, obviously, because he either believes in them or doesn’t want to ruin their trade value, or more realistically a bit of both. He’s obviously going to see what’s out there to better the team at the top, but he’s tied so much of his career to Marner that I bet he’s going to be very conservative on a trade with him.

I’m a little worried because I’ve mostly made up my mind and I know where I lean, while Dubas might not have made his mind up yet, but I’m pretty sure he leans the opposite way from me.

Katya: I don’t think they were being disingenuous at all, but Chris Johnston keeps saying he thinks they have to move someone not too far down the roster order. He also said that last offseason too, though, so it’s his thesis on how the team should be retooled, not inside scoop.

How pessimistic are you about that plan?

Fulemin: I’m pretty down on it. I want to emphasize: it’s not that I think Mitch Marner is a bad player who sucks and is worthy of our rage and contempt. I think he’s a very good player who can’t be worth his cap hit, on a team that already can’t afford wasted cap, in a league whose revenues unexpectedly cratered six months after Marner signed that shiny, oversized deal. It is hard for me to see how next year’s Toronto is better than this year’s Toronto, or how they have an easier path than this year’s Toronto. That leaves hoping that they’re luckier than this year’s team. Maybe they will be. But I don’t feel good betting on it.

Arvind: It’s hard to feel particularly psyched about the idea of running it back with this core for the 4th straight year, having accomplished precisely nothing in the first three. That doesn’t preclude it from being the best approach though. I think the Leafs are staring down the barrel of a lot of crappy options, and this might be the least crappy of the bunch.

Putting aside whether it is or not, I think there is a fandom element that is going to result in some disquiet if we just tinker around the edges. Embarrassing playoff losses exude a stench that retroactively makes everything fun in the regular season somewhat less so, at least to me. Further, it makes it so that the Leafs can’t really do anything that will pleasantly surprise me during the 2021/2022 regular season, though they definitely will be able to do the opposite. It makes for a bleak time as a fan. Having some sort of change would mitigate that somewhat, and give fans both some hope of things being different and something to care about while we wait for our next embarrassing result. Which isn’t a good reason to make a change, to be clear. But it is the reality of being in the entertainment business.

Brigstew: I was less down on it when I thought the salary cap was going to go up by a good chunk from the new TV deals in the US, and the new Seattle expansion franchise coming. If it’s flat for the next few years that just takes away too much of the future flexibility they may have had to fill out the rest of their roster.

Katya: I’m not thrilled. Dubas had a comment about taking the whole playoff performance and the whole regular season together, not just looking at the last three games. And he said that last summer too, when he said he didn’t think the Leafs performed very well in that regular season. He talked then about how you can’t look at either the highs or the lows, you have to look at it all, so fine. Allow me.

It’s not quantifiable how strong the North Division is, but I think we can all be confident that no one other than the Leafs were in the same echelon as Boston or Tampa. The Leafs played very poorly at times against Ottawa, Edmonton and Montréal. Edmonton doesn’t have a good defence on paper, but when they played the Leafs, they tried to trap and disrupt the offensive cycle. Ottawa is a trap team extraordinaire and Montréal can possess the puck easily as well as the Leafs and get in the way of their cycle. Sound familiar? That’s how Boston and Columbus beat them.

I think the Leafs were improved, but not by enough. Their game allows for big goals against from defensive breakdowns, even when they keep the shots against down, and they don’t all that well. They just shoot so much the percentages look good. And their offence is a multi-geared machine that a simple stick stuck in the right spot can grind to a halt. I thought that was improved, but now I think that was more illusion cast by the North Division than I believed.

I don’t see anyone on the Leafs who recognizes those weaknesses, they can only see a need for mental toughness.

Hardev: It would be pretty erratic if Dubas completely threw in the towel and had it in his head that he needed to trade Marner immediately. Hence why I’m not a GM. Going through the process of looking for a trade is necessary, I just won’t help but feel disappointed and a little indifferent about the team that’s just going to run itself back in a tougher division with the same flaws as before.

There are a lot of comparisons to Tampa’s collapse against the Blue Jackets the year before they won the cup. Is a valid take?

Hardev: No, because we already had that loss to the Blue Jackets. The Lightning beat the Red Wings plenty of times in the first round. You can't just keep resetting the bar and say the team is starting their *real* run tomorrow.

Fulemin: There’s just no evidence the Leafs are on a level with Tampa Bay. Tampa was more talented, utterly dominated a real regular season (as opposed to a bunch of Canadian mediocrities), and had made recent playoff runs. People cite teams that eventually broke through and ignore that plenty of teams never did. Could the Leafs still be good and go on a run next year? Definitely. They just haven’t shown us enough to expect them to.

Arvind: As others have said, Tampa built up credibility through prior years with extended stints near the top of the league and deep playoff runs, including a Stanley Cup final and multiple conference finals. There’s no real comparison there. Similar idea holds for comparisons to Washington or San Jose.

Brigstew: If they win the Cup next year, sure.

Katya: It is not valid. The Leafs are embarking on the kind of dull offseason mature teams like Washington have. And they just made a very immature early exit. They’ve got about 150 regular season games played looking like a very good team, that’s it. They haven’t earned the right to flub that bad and still be trusted to run it out again.

It seemed like Kyle Dubas tried to buy some adult supervision, grit, grart and playoff knowhow last summer and not much of it worked. Is this loss on him? To what degree?

Fulemin: A fair bit of it. The T.J. Brodie acquisition went very well, and you can hardly blame Dubas for the awful John Tavares injury, which played a huge part in this loss. Yet the obvious premise of several of his moves was “playoff toughness” and there was just none of that in evidence. I hoped it might help, but it didn’t. He also completely and utterly owns the Keefe coaching choice (see below.)

Arvind: As Katya is fond of saying, it takes a village to be this bad. Dubas certainly owns some of it. Even last fall, I was saying the Leafs left some value on the table with their depth acquisitions (I was particularly down on Wayne Simmonds’ on-ice contributions). I thought the Foligno trade made some sense despite the price being high, and there was certainly bad luck that made it such that we never really got to see what he could provide. It’s hard to blame Dubas for either Foligno’s or Tavares’ injury. That said, I thought the Foligno trade made sense before I saw how little Taylor Hall went for, and it goes without saying that the Leafs should have preferred the latter to the former, if it was at all possible. At the same time, the biggest acquisition Dubas made was T.J. Brodie, who was inarguably fantastic. And that’s worth more in the plus column than the mixed bag depth acquisitions and deadline moves are in the minus column.

I think the biggest criticism you can levy at Dubas is that he committed to the wrong guys. The obvious one to point at is Marner’s deal, though there’s a surprising amount of “Matthews isn’t worth his money” truthers out there. If you view these as mistakes, these are far more impactful than the 4th line. Dubas doesn’t seem to think they are, by what he’s said publicly, but of course, that could always be posturing. He’s hardly going to advertise a mis-step of his.

Brigstew: I don’t think it’s on Dubas for his Rocket Richard star only scoring one goal in seven games. I don’t think it’s on him for his $11 million winger that was top 5 in points having a bad case of the yips. I don’t think it’s on him for John Tavares getting hurt for the whole series in a freak incident, or for Foligno also being/playing hurt. I do think it’s on him for maybe leaning into the leadership area too hard, without also accounting for quality of play on the ice. I also think it’s on him for having a lot of players outside of the big four and Spezza who can’t score. Mikheyev, Engvall, Simmonds, Thornton, and sometimes Nash all being in the lineup and providing some “other” value (speed, PK, defense, physical play, leadership, whatever) is all well and good when the stars are producing. But they need to score sometimes. And I realize that guys who can produce get paid more, and likely to be too expensive for the Leafs to afford under the cap, but that’s a problem Dubas has to find some way to solve. He has brought in Brodie, Campbell, Muzzin, Spezza, and even Bogosian and Galchenyuk. He can find diamonds in the rough, and make good mid-tier moves to improve specific needs. He’s going to have to do it again this off-season and without the cap going up I don’t know how he does it without making a significant move, or getting Hyman extended with a BIG hometown discount.

Katya: I really liked the concept of Foligno. I think someone of his sort on the Tavares - Nylander line is a good idea. I don’t see how they need help scoring, and keeping them in the offensive zone is a good idea. Would I like that person to be Gabe Landeskog? You betcha. I think it will be someone a few, or more than a few, rungs down the ladder. My point is, that trade was the right call from Dubas.

The rest of his deadline deals range from the mystifying to the pointless. Since when will Sheldon Keefe play a player in the playoffs for the first time and keep him on the ice for more than the blink of an eye? Why spend even a sixth for Nash? Hutton was okay as depth insurance, but was there the opportunity to add value instead of getting some guys just to get guys were weren’t the guys Keefe already didn’t like?

But most of all, I agree so much with Brigs that there are too many of those guys who you’d be happy to have on the fourth line instead of Joe Thornton. And they were all playing in the middle six, and that’s why a deadline spend of some kind was necessary, just to have a complete team. It’s okay to have players who are there to PK or to add defensive value. But too many of them playing too high in the lineup is a problem another team in the North Division had, and I shouldn’t be comparing the Leafs’ roster to Ottawa’s right now.

Hardev: I do think he got a little sucked into that and didn’t realize this team could really use another offensive weapon. Genuinely, this team has relied on too few good players to not have bad days and always be a little better than expected in order to win. Hall was a get-able asset that would’ve balanced out better the players who bring tangible (goals) results and those who kind of do, but mostly motivate and skate along in the bottom six.

This goes back to the original problem that leads to trading Mitch Marner. The Leafs need to allocate more money/roster spots to scoring if they’re going to be a team to beat. A top-five with a tag-along like Hyman or Galchenyuk, or even both in the top-six and a good player with Kerfoot on the third line. I think that would really help. If the Leafs can turn the $13 million or so from Marner and Hyman into $6 million and $7 million top-six offensive players, they’d be much better off.

Keefe, though.

Fulemin: I guess at least now we can stop holding a fucking festival every time Keefe does something different from what Mike Babcock did. I don’t think Keefe is a terrible coach by any means, and he’s made some decent changes—I like the move to a heavy cycle team and the team has genuinely improved 5v5. He’s also reached into a bag with no tricks at the end of two consecutive seasons, produced teams that produced nothing in elimination games, somehow overseen power plays that did nothing with extraordinary amounts of money, and his reluctance to use a player who was succeeding (Nylander) over one who was flailing (Marner) is the kind of thing that Babcock was raked over the coals for. I expect him back, and I also expect that he’s coaching for his job now.

Arvind: I’ve accepted that there’s no coach I’ll ever be completely happy with. There does seem to be some low hanging fruit on this team. The power play is the obvious example of that, and it’s pretty unconscionable that it’s as bad as it is. Keefe deserves blame for that, as the coach. On the other hand Keefe deserves credit for how improved the team was at 5v5 throughout the year. Unfortunately, the playoffs are how we define success and it’s very easy to quibble with the decisions Keefe has made in both of the playoff series’ he’s coached the Leafs in.

Brigstew: Keefe is not perfect, and not awful. I don’t think he single handedly lost that series, but I also don’t think he put the team in the best position to succeed when it comes to his systems and personnel choices. Not that those decisions were terrible, but not ideal for me. On the one hand I would be willing to cut him some slack as a rookie coach, but I said this since Keefe was hired: the Leafs are not in a position where they can really afford to let a rookie coach go through his growing pains right when they want to be legitimate Cup contenders. I am not someone who thinks that a coach can have a major impact on a team (unless its a really negative one). But when Dubas talks about getting the most out of his roster, dealing with cap issues by finding undervalued players, trying to get the most bang for his buck.... I just look at Keefe and the coaching staff with a raised eyebrow. Coaches aren’t part of the cap, and I do think that coaches can help eke out an extra percentage or two and/or cost you a percentage or two with the decisions they make. I feel like me typing this all out is talking myself into wanting a coaching change.

Katya: I’ve been thinking about one thing regarding Keefe. Nimbleness. It’s a biz buzzword now as everyone wants to be nimble in their response to change. Gary Bettman loves to use it to talk about the NHL’s pandemic response. And I think my issue with Keefe is that he just isn’t nimble ever.

I lauded him for not chucking Rasmus Sandin or Alex Galchenyuk off the roster when they’d done dumb things, and that is good, reactionary coaching isn’t what I want, but when things happen in-game, and this goes way back to some horrible games last regular season, Keefe doesn’t act.

Process is Dubas’s word, but Keefe lives it out every day. We’ve mocked him for his lamenting the short training camps lately, and yet, I don’t think that’s an excuse, I think he needs a lot of prep time. He takes forever to even try a player in the lineup, and then they barely play, and he’s more likely to stick with what he has than add something new.

Some of these qualities are good because change for the sake of leads to chaos, but the status quo is a comfortable place for people, and when there is an emergency — like a team playing like the Sabres in a Game 7 — you have run out of time to let the process play out.

Hardev: That heat map from Game 7 has been burned into me after having to recap that game. Shots from the right point, potential rebounds from the far side of the net, transitions the other way for shots against Campbell’s left side. You can see the counterattack sequence so clearly on the page it hurts. I don’t know what Keefe was thinking there. He went away from everything that’s made the team successful and defaulted to an old coaching tactic. He really should’ve been able to see that the Leafs weren’t getting to the front of the net and instead go for volume shots from the wing with traffic. I hated that heat map, it reminded me of 2013 and Don bleeping Cherry yelling about the point shots style.

Everyone talked about “closing” the series. A reporter counted the times the players said it and asked Dubas about it. The talking points were about consistency, playing with urgency, and Shanahan summed it up with his remark about how the team lacked killer instinct. So, how is that going to change?

Fulemin: If they get luckier, that’ll help. It’s painful to raise, but the Leafs needed one bounce at any of several moments to win this series. As for why the team played its worst hockey of the series to start Game 6 and throughout Game 7, I don’t know, but I find it hard to believe the answer is just that these players will figure it out. Maybe it’s psychological; if they actually get through a series by hook or by crook, they might start to believe in their own abilities instead of wilting. Or maybe this team just isn’t as good at playoff hockey as we need them to be.

Arvind: It won’t change until it does.

Brigstew: They had urgency in the face of adversary after losing Tavares and game one. They rattled off three great games that led to wins. After being on the precipice of eliminating the Habs, they rattled off three terrible games to differing extents. All three were characterized by bad starts, bad turnovers, and digging a hole in the form of multi-goal deficits. They came back twice, and blew it twice. They were one bounce away in game 5 and 6 from advancing and a completely different narrative would be spun right now. Then they were just outright awful for all of game 7. It’s one thing to say they need more consistency, but quite frankly we’re starting to see some consistency with how they play in big games in the playoffs. The amount of times they have a poor effort and we see players and coaches say something like “we weren’t ready on time” is alarmingly consistent to me at this point.

Hardev: To me, it’s like playoff baseball: make sure your fundamentals are sound (a lesson I learned from the 2015 Blue Jays). Run the bases, get the right defensive outs, execute plays like moving the runner over, etc. For the Leafs that means complete passes (how many times was Willy left hanging?), follow the structure (see heat map above), and take the shots when you get them and trust in volume (Game 7 saw the Leafs take the fewest shot attempts all series, five fewer even than Game 5). The ability to not panic and flail into the alternate strategy is important.

I think William Nylander has this, John Tavares as well, looking at previous playoffs. Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, and Spezza are the other main guys I think have it too. But I don’t think Matthews and Marner have figured that out yet, and neither have players like Holl or Hyman, who finished the final three games in brutal form. This is a problem and one, I don’t know how coachable that skill is, and two if the Leafs realistically have the time to wait for it to develop, if it does at all.

Katya: What Shanahan said is not wrong. Self-image, belief in your own abilities, the work ethic to understand you have to work hard all the time even when you don’t want to, for me, from where I have lived, that’s a thing working class people learn, women learn, because they have no choice. Jobs have to get done, so they get done. So I do understand the desire to make this all about heart, and where the term “lunch box” player comes from.

You’ve got to have heart, miles and miles of it, and yet... you don’t get to the NHL without that. Go read the Auston Matthews story over again, the tale of tiny Mitch Marner grabbing hockey by the throat and making it bow to him, the Nylander tale of always and forever being underestimated. This is a damn movie script, and Amazon should film it.

And that’s why I don’t, quite, buy in on the “it’s in their heads” theory. I don’t think this team is good enough. It will take a set of ruthless and clever moves to improve without trading Mitch Marner or asking John Tavares to waive his NMC. Neither of which is happening.

I can’t have what I want, so I’m not asking for it, but it starts with the letter Q.