Last August, in the aftermath of a disappointing Maple Leafs playoff loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, I wrote an article titled “Tick Tock.” Rather than a reference to the short video clip service popular with a generation of youths who do all sorts of weird shit I don’t understand, this meant that Kyle Dubas had one more shot to try and prove that this core was worthy of contention. Dubas tried; he made a successful addition of T.J. Brodie and some more dubious additions of Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and later Nick Foligno. The team drew the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1, and after seven games, it failed.
The playoffs are a great time for overreacting, of course. The Leafs were in overtime with the potential to end the series twice, and it would have taken exactly one lucky bounce for this entire narrative to feel and sound different. If Alex Galchenyuk doesn’t make an absolutely braindead play in Game 5 overtime, maybe the Leafs go on to end things there, and we’re all raving about how the Leafs overcame the adversity of losing John Tavares ten minutes into the series by rattling off four mostly-solid wins.
Yet even the most process-over-results people have to grapple with what did happen in those last few games. The Leafs looked worse and worse as the series went on, and measurably were so. Their best players—Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner specifically—fell silent, and all that veteran savvy seemed to add up to a heroic Jason Spezza and a few guys who simply looked old. The primary offence evaporated, the secondary offence was never really there, and the team went as close to getting shut out in Game 7 as they could have without actually doing it by scoring one hopeless goal after the game was out of reach.
The Leafs have now concluded the fifth season of the Matthews-Marner-Nylander core and have won zero playoff series. The playoffs are random and chancy and unfair and they are nonetheless how we measure what matters in this sport, and this group has failed. If the goal is to win in the playoffs, and it obviously is, you cannot have an infinite tolerance for playoff losses no matter how nice the regular seasons look.
This brings us to a point I think a lot of fans have already reached. It’s time to move a core piece.
The Matthews-Marner-Nylander group of rookies was incredible and exciting and led to one of the most fun years this franchise has known in 2016-17. They’re all now well-paid, which I don’t hold against them, except that in a cap league salary matters. We wanted to believe that an expensive core of stars surrounded by supporting players—the “stars and scrubs” model—was our ticket to success. The idea has worked better elsewhere. But the Leafs paid through the nose to keep these three and then to add John Tavares, and they have seen no return on their investment when it counted.
These are good players, and I like them all. They’ve provided great moments. It’s possible the Leafs really did just get very unlucky not to win a round already. But I don’t think Toronto can spend any longer finding out, not after they blew what was, frankly, the easiest road to the conference finals they’re ever likely to get. Victory is the measure of success in sports, and that can be a tough standard, but that’s reality.
If the Leafs’ current construction is flawed, there are a few possible explanations we can work through.
- The team is good enough, but the coaching isn’t;
- The core players are good enough, and it’s possible to surround them with enough talent, but management screwed this up;
- The core players are good enough, but they make too much money in a capped league for management to surround them with adequate talent;
- The core players aren’t good enough as a group to be the central figures on a contending team.
Sheldon Keefe has not covered himself in glory throughout his NHL playoff career (well, his qualifying round and playoff career, to be technical.) The team has looked fine enough in the regular season under him, but has produced less and less as the games mattered more and more. The power play, once an unstoppable strength, has struggled almost incredibly badly even in the regular season.
I can’t imagine Manny Malhotra is back running the man advantage next year, and I’m not impressed with Sheldon Keefe. But this team wasn’t winning series under Mike Babcock either, and against both Columbus and Montreal the Leafs should have had a considerable talent advantage, enough that you would expect just playing hockey as standard might be enough. I don’t think Keefe has shown himself to be the solution. I find it hard to believe he’s the main problem.
The Leafs added again and again for veteran savvy this year, and it mostly didn’t work. They added skill in the past, and it didn’t seem to be enough then either. I think you can question plenty of these additions. What you can’t deny is that they usually make $2M or less.
There are two big supporting players on the Leafs, and they’re the two best defensive defencemen: Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie. I don’t think either Muzzin or Brodie has been the problem (and Muzzin, thanks to injury, has missed out on the elimination game each of the last two years.) I have concerns about how these two will age, and wasting some of the best years they have left is a harsh reality. But I don’t think they were bad additions.
After that it’s a grab bag of has-beens and never-wases, to paraphrase Courtney Love. At some point when you’re playing stone-hands Ilya Mikheyev and no-offence Pierre Engvall and ancient Joe Thornton up and down your lineup, that tells. The Leafs could have used someone better in place of each. They could not have afforded anyone more expensive. There are prominent successes here, too—Alex Galchenyuk, errors and all, and Jason Spezza—but you can’t get the most valuable contracts in the NHL every single time. If the Leafs have to be able to assemble half their roster for the NHL equivalent of pocket change and have it be above average, that may just be asking the impossible.
I supported signing John Tavares. I still am glad we signed John Tavares. But it’s undeniable that having three players each making about $11M against the salary cap does put strain on the roster like we just discussed. If it’s not reasonable to have every cheap contract be a Jason Spezza—and I don’t think it is, considering Spezza had probably the best non-ELC contract under a million dollars in the entire league—then we need our core to carry us.
And they didn’t.
John Tavares obviously couldn’t do much about this series, considering he got injured ten minutes into it, and he has a no movement clause anyway. William Nylander played well and productively despite a grab bag of linemates who—see above—were dicey at times. He also makes a very reasonable salary for a top-line forward.
Auston Matthews struggled. Maybe it’s lingering injury or fatigue, but he was increasingly ineffective as the series went on and could not produce when it mattered. Yet he won the Rocket Richard this year and is the franchise player. You don’t trade him unless the team is tanking outright, and the Leafs are nowhere close to that.
That leaves Mitch Marner.
Marner makes $10.93M against the salary cap, an amount that was obviously too high for him at the instant the contract was signed and that looks worse in light of his disappearing acts in the playoffs. He struggled to generate much of anything and, at his worst, looked like a very talented perimeter player who could not figure out how to break through.
At his best, Marner can cut up defences with his passing, and I don’t discount his incredible vision or those spectacular point totals. Yet if the flattened salary cap is straining this roster until it squeaks, and if the core isn’t good enough to compensate, both roads lead to one destination.
The Leafs would be risking selling low on Marner. I know that. He’s a very good player and I don’t blame him on a moral level for the loss. I’m sure he wants this as much as anyone, and he seems devastated that he couldn’t deliver.
The fact remains that losses require changes. Running it back over and over is not viable. The Leafs changed their GM, their coach, their supporting cast, their defence, and got to the same place. A look for the common elements that went through all those failures settles on the core, and the blame can’t be placed elsewhere.
Time is up. Thanks for the memories, Mitch.