I'm calling this a blog post because it's just a bit of a ramble of thoughts, not a real coherent narrative with a point to it.
After game three of the second round, when the Leafs had played very poorly for three straight at a very inopportune moment, I went back and read two things from the end of the Montréal series. Both were about Mitch Marner. One was written right at the end of the final game, and I asked if this was the end for Marner. As you know, it wasn't, and yet, I wasn't the only one who thought something big would go down as the fallout to that series.
That series was horrible, but this loss to Florida is not the same, not least because Florida is really good, and Montréal was little more than a goalie on the last hot run of his career.
Chris Johnston really believed the Leafs would "shake up" the core back then. And they didn't, and things proceded as they did. The only genuine difference now is that Kyle Dubas doesn't have a contract.
And, if I'm being honest, the disappearance of Brendan Shanahan from visibility in the press box in recent games is ominous. The replacement of the AGMs with Jason Spezza as the watch partner is ominous.
I don't believe in sacrificial firings, in symbolic punishment, in whatever the ritual is that the NHL indulges in where a loss demands a head to roll. I think it's immature and makes teams weak. But I also think teams often suffer from too much complacency. The NHL seems to require an emotional reason to fire a GM or a coach. So if you bumble along kinda okay, never really contending, you can have the same GM for decades. But if you try really hard and fail – well, we're all embarrassed, and you cover that with anger and you fire a guy.
From a purely hockey team building perspective, I wouldn't fire Kyle Dubas. But, as I've said before, I don't have to look at the ratings reports for Round 3. I'm not the Rogers CEO. I think that's going to have an impact on thinking. I don't think that's a good way to run a hockey team, by the way. I just think you can't ask someone to set aside their central interest in an enterprise and be fair or dispassionate. Nothing about any of this is fair.
Dubas isn't just going to be judged on his work as GM -- he's on the hook for more than team building. He got out the super glue and he stuck himself firmly and irrevocably to Sheldon Keefe. Keefe who has a contract extension still in place.
The other thing I wrote about Mitch Marner back then was a bit of a manifesto, because if you don't hurl invective, if you aren't absolutely opposed to someone in a stompy toddler throwing their toys way, you're assumed to be totally in favour of them.
I almost think I need to do one on Sheldon Keefe now. But I think I'll just distill it down more than I even did in that bit on Marner.
- I don't like the man for reasons that are bigger than hockey.
- When he was hired, the smarmy overenthusiastic fanning of the guy flickered between absurd and revolting. Everything that makes you roll your eyes about the gushing over Marty St. Louis was done double over Keefe.
- The relentless anger-fuelled, knee-jerk, "everything Keefe does is wrong" reaction now is as bad.
- I think there's some issues with the system Keefe runs, but not in the clothes-rending, he's destroyed the team way that fandom would have you believe.
- I think Keefe is a very good evaluator of players and I nearly always agree with his post-game analysis.
- But this is what I think is the problem:
Keefe has a very good quality, one fairly absent in most hockey coaches. He appears to genuinely get randomness. He's not reactive to every breeze. He doesn't bench players for mistakes, he doesn't very often remove someone from the lineup for on-ice results not of their making, and he gets that sometimes you just have to wait out the turn of the wheel of fortune.
And it bites him and the team on the ass sometimes.
There are times when he seems to freeze through three games of ineffective play at the start of a playoff round – or the end of one. There are times when, as someone here has said, he sounds like a casual bystander in his post-game pressers, as if what the team does is incidental to his presence there. There are times when he plays Jake McCabe with TJ Brodie long past the point it should be changed – no hindsight required.
But here's the bottom line.
This is hockey at it's most reductive: get the puck, keep the puck, do smart things with the puck, out-chance the other team. And Keefe's teams never manage to do that in the playoffs despite some very good average results in the regular season.
Is that all on him? It seems vanishingly unlikely that he is the only problem, and he's hardly responsible for the reality of the LW situation or the circumstances that led to it. But it's pretty hard to watch the Hurricanes play hockey and not wonder why the Leafs can't do what they do. Or the Panthers.
And that Rogers CEO is about to get the chance to do that.