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The Case For The Leafs To Run It Back

One more time? One more time.

Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue

There’s a quote that usually gets attributed to Albert Einstein, which goes like this:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Einstein never said this, and it would be weird for him to have done so considering the importance of replication in scientific experiments. And it’s not the most precise wording to begin with: “insanity” here stands in for “bad decision-making” despite the word evoking mental illness. But the quote is nonetheless beloved by people who want to insist that a change be made and find the twentieth century’s #1 smart guy a handy authority.

You can probably guess the Toronto Maple Leafs tie-in without me needing to do the usual second-paragraph transition. The Leafs got knocked out in Game 7 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the fifth consecutive time they’ve lost a winner-take-all playoff game since drafting Auston Matthews. Despite this, the mood in Leafland is, if not exactly cheery, at least tolerant. A hard-fought series against the double defending champs feels better than a limp collapse against the fraudulent Montreal Canadiens.

On a related note, there may not be major changes coming to the team. Leafs President Brendan Shanahan has said general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe will be returning. Dubas has given quotes emphasizing that he isn’t interested in making moves for the sake of making moves.

It seems almost beside the point to note that the regular season was a fantastic success for Toronto. Nobody cares about the regular season, despite it being what we spend six months watching; Toronto was in a tier with the best teams in hockey and might have won the President’s Trophy if Petr Mrázek hadn’t fallen apart. Statistically they belonged in the top class. I hear you, though. We care about playoffs.

If you believe (I do) that going about even against the Tampa Bay Lightning means you’re in the contending tier, then you’re likely fine with the team standing pat. The least successful move of Dubas’ tenure was the Nazem Kadri trade, which was at least partly provoked by the feeling that the team had to do something after Naz got himself suspended for the second playoffs in a row. Going further back, overreacting to a playoff series in the other direction led the dumbest Leafs front office in recent memory to sign David Clarkson. A calmer, more collected response seems like a good thing—if you buy that the team is already close.

But not everyone feels that way. There is a loud segment of fans that thinks the most recent playoff loss is evidence of the same damn thing that cost Toronto the previous five years: a lack of killer instinct. Toronto only scored one goal against the bolts en route to a 2-1 loss in Game 7. (Well, one goal that was allowed to count.) No matter how respectably they may have played, they didn’t score enough to win. When the chips are down, when the heat is on, when the battle is at its hottest, when the wheat is separated from the chaff, when the [editor’s note: he wanted to do like twenty of these]—that’s when the Leafs fail. They’ve failed before, and they’ve failed again, and what should we expect if we give them another chance? The definition of insanity, as fake Albert Einstein and a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet in 1983 said, is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Let’s explore that. What’s the same thing they keep doing?

What Do They Keep Doing Wrong?

Losing! Like a bunch of losers.

Okay, but beyond that. When Kyle Dubas succeeded Lou Lamoriello in 2018, the Leafs had just lost a Game 7 to the Boston Bruins. There are exactly four players from that lineup who are still on the team in 2022: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. So since that Game 7, the Leafs changed their GM, coach, and virtually their entire roster. That leaves us with three possibilities:

a) Whatever is wrong with the Leafs pursues them despite discontinuities in personnel, like a curse on a Gothic manor

b) Whatever is wrong with the Leafs is concentrated in those four players

c) There’s at least some bad luck involved here and what happened to the prior teams doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about where they are now

The Curse

I think we can all agree that the Leafs upset a malevolent spirit at some point, and really there’s not much to be done except to summon exorcists of different faiths until the hungering ghost is placated. I assume this is what the analytics department is for.

There’s a less supernatural, more psychological angle on this, though: the here we go again feeling. It’s the inverse of the old saying that nothing succeeds like success. The idea is that the Leafs, having lost when they ought to have won on many occasions, experience doubt at critical points. The doubt is a self-fulfilling prophecy in a game like hockey, which rewards instinct and punishes hesitation. Group psychology being what it is, this feeling spreads throughout the team even as different players come and go over time. It’s why those fine regular season statistics don’t end up amounting to playoff wins: there’s something specific that goes wrong when the chips are down, dropping this team from contender to pretender.

It’s hard to prove or disprove this, but I’d note something. In Game 5 and in Game 6, the Leafs clawed their way back from two-goal deficits and played real goddamn well against probably the best playoff opponent they’ve ever had. “But they lost the series!” Yeah. They lost the series. If you want to boil it down to losers lose and winners win, then fine. But if you want to start explaining why they lost and why it justifies the changes you want to make, you need to establish your diagnosis before prescribing your cure. In the last eight-plus periods of Round 1, the Leafs did not play like they were here we go again-ing. They played like contenders. Playing like contenders is usually considered a prerequisite to being contenders.

That doesn’t mean I think the ghost is gone, or that there’s no longer any doubt. Only winning banishes the demons. And against Montreal I was disappointed by Toronto’s performance in the latter two games. But if I have to evaluate what the team put in front of me this year, I didn’t see the team choking. I think whatever mentality the Buds had in this series is a mentality that can win a round, and maybe four.

The Core Four

Okay, what about those four players? Or five, if you want to include John Tavares.

Some people do indeed want to include John Tavares. But there’s not much point. He’s the biggest UFA signing in team history, he’s the captain, he moved his family here, and he has a full no-movement clause. He isn’t leaving. Yes, he’s aging, but there’s no use preoccupying ourselves with changes that aren’t going to happen, whether under Kyle Dubas or the fantasy GM successor of your choice.

No one not on hallucinogenic drugs wants to trade Auston Matthews. There is a not-unreasonable case to trade Morgan Rielly, but he too has a no-move clause; if you really think Rielly needs to go, that’s an argument to fire Dubas. But Rielly’s staying, and for the time being, so’s the GM who extended him. That leaves Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

I’ve said in the past Toronto should consider trading Marner, and I won’t rule it out now. If a team offers you a king’s ransom, by all means listen. But Marner is a player with 100-point potential who plays in all situations and answered at least some of the questions about his playoff performance this year. A contract like his would put serious cap strain on the receiving team, and finding a workable trade that actually makes the Leafs better is difficult. If there’s one out there, take it! But otherwise, it’s as Dubas said: there’s no good forcing yourself into a deal that makes you worse.

It’s Nylander, of course, that plenty of people want gone. As he joked himself, he’s been fantasy-traded every summer he’s been here, despite perfectly fine playoff production. (By point rate at 5v5, he’s the second-best Leaf in the last three postseasons, behind the glorious Jason Spezza.) That doesn’t mean you can’t trade him; as with Marner, you should listen. If you think you can find a better fit with John Tavares to support the second line or add punch to the third, by all means do it. There’s a difference, though, between that mindset and the quote we started with.

Which Way?

Did the Leafs lose because they were short one goal when it counted, or did they lose because they’re fatally flawed? That’s what the definition of insanity quote stands in for here. If there’s something fundamentally wrong that’s been doing them since the Boston series, then it has to be found and fixed. But I want more than “they lost”. I want more than “there must be something wrong because they’ve lost too many times.”

The they who played the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t the they who lost to Boston, or even to Montreal. Many players are entirely new; the ones who stayed have grown. The playoffs require us to make judgments based on a few games, on a handful of key moments. If we want to condemn the roster based on how recent series ended, then it’s equally valid to credit them for how they played against the Bolts.

I get wanting heads to roll, to have some roster response to the frustration of no series wins. I could be wrong, too; maybe this is a mirage. Even if I’m right, the Leafs’ coin could come up tails again and see them out first round in 2023, and after that there will be major changes, without question.

In the modern NHL, though, all you can do is build a great team, keep trying to improve it, and hope your number comes up. The team I saw the last few weeks didn’t snuff out my hope that that’s possible. So listen on the stars, tool around the edges, and if there’s no robbery trade on offer, run it back. The Leafs never make sense anyway. Maybe the right answer involves some insanity.