Another tragedy at the TD Garden. An opportunity at a gettable path through to the Stanley Cup final squandered. It was antithetical Leafs; they generally outperformed Boston at even strength through the series, held the series lead three times, and held a one score lead at home in game six to threaten Boston’s elimination. And yet they earned a result so quintessentially Leaf, it likely surprised no one.
Easter Sunday’s game six loss in Toronto felt like a series loss. The hockey city’s dreary disposition Tuesday wasn’t helped by overcast skies, but the 2019 Maple Leafs had earned their fans’ skepticism. 2019 was, to put it frankly, a shitty season. The early promise of a juggernaut offense spearheaded by an otherworldly powerplay was quashed midseason and a stubborn coaching staff failed to adjust. After adding top ten NHL centre John Tavares and top pair left back Jake Muzzin, and with their young stars all one year older, the Maple Leafs failed to secure as many standings points as they’d earned the year prior and flamed out in nearly the same fashion. A few glaring mistakes. A poor goaltending performance. A coaching performance so poor it drew surprise and criticism from the Bruins locker room postgame.
Last year the Leafs chased the series. They were handled at even strength and relied on Fred Andersen to carry them to a seventh game. This year, the opposite. Only, for whatever reason, be it maturity or experience or what have you, the Maple Leafs couldn’t close. That’s what stings. A playoff series was, for the first time since the year long 2004-05 lockout, leaning heavily in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ favour. They were headed back home with a 3-2 series lead and momentum from a deadlock breaking win. Opportunity lost.
Full disclosure, I’m a fan first. I’m incapable of objectivity. My opinions are led by my passions. But over coffee, twelve hours removed from another hockey heartbreak, I cannot see a way forward for these Maple Leafs without organizational changes. I don’t believe William Nylander or Nazem Kadri should be traded. Both are valuable players, and the series might’ve been shorter with another fringe first line player suiting up for Toronto, especially a player of Kadri’s physical impact.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that dissenting voices in a front office or locker room is required for success. Organizational consistency is paramount. On its face, the idea that a team’s management and coaching groups should hold the same ideals, on and off-ice, is a sensible one. In Toronto, it’s reasonably assumed the two groups see things similarly off-ice. What we’ve learned this year via third-party reports, not-so-subtle comments from players and staff, and by observing the clear disconnect between managerial intention and coaching systems and personnel deployment, is there is an organizational rift on matters related to playing the game.
Regardless of game seven’s underlying metrics, some criticisms ring loudly.
You cannot give that little ice time in a double elimination game to your best players.
You cannot give that much ice time in a double elimination game to your worst players.
You cannot take the first powerplay unit off the ice with ten minutes remaining in your season down two goals to send an entirely ineffective unit onto the ice.
You cannot wait until the final six minutes of your season to make your first personnel adjustment of the playoffs.
You cannot with any reasonable degree of professional or intellectual integrity claim to have tried to fix the team’s issues when you’ve deployed the same personnel in the same order, and using the same systems, from October through to April.
Bruce Cassidy put on a clinic against Mike Babcock in game seven. The Leafs’ biggest disadvantage was on the bench.
With Toronto’s much discussed cap crunch looming, Kyle Dubas is sure to have a hard summer. He must look at moving out Nikita Zaitsev. Zaitsev performed well in this first round series, but the bulk of his work with the Maple Leafs has been poor. His trade value is very likely higher than it’s been since 2016. Teams will bite. Management must have a conversation with Nazem Kadri. His suspensions two years in a row, in the same corner of the same rink and on similar plays, have changed the courses of two coinflip series. Dubas must find a right shot defenceman capable of eating big minutes effectively, and another back capable of stabilizing a mid-pairing on Morgan Rielly’s right side. A one-year older Ron Hainsey won’t suffice. Ideally, Jake Muzzin and Minutes Eater take the toughs while Morgan Rielly and Stable Guy are free to provide offense.
This is very likely the end of Jake Gardiner’s time in Toronto. He’s been an effective left back for a long time. The Leafs will miss his work in transition and his presence in the locker room. But I don’t see, barring his taking significant team-friendly discount, how they’ll be able to retain his services.
Patrick Marleau’s contract will hamstring the team next season. Dubas will, I’m sure, urge him to accept a trade elsewhere. The inconvenient truth is his contract might be the biggest obstacle to Maple Leafs’ success. Six million dollars is a lot of money in this salary cap era. That’s first line production money, and Patrick Marleau is, despite his many successes and illustrious career, replacement level in the year 2019. It will only be worse by 2020.
The biggest conversation that needs having is between team management and the coaching staff. Are they on the same page tactically? Do they put stock in the same personnel? Do they see player acquisitions the same way? Plenty of teams find success after making coaching changes. It’s often the result of a fresh player-coach relationship. Players are wont to grow tired of coaching staffs, especially after suffering repeated failure. New routines, new conversations, and new personality management can breathe fresh air into stale rooms. Systems changes, too, can make marked differences in team performance. See Pittsburgh in 2016. With such a fast and talented roster in Toronto, would a coach who provides more forward support down low on breakouts and in defensive flurries be more effective? Would a coach who talent loads lines be more effective? These are questions I’m certain Kyle Dubas is asking his support team and advisors.
Sheldon Keefe is in waiting. Sheldon Keefe is a Kyle Dubas hire. If history is our strongest predictor, we should assume Keefe will be with the big club’s staff soon. It is, after another failure in Boston, a question of his capacity.
Onto another year for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I am, for the first time in a long time, confident that change is coming. Brendan Shanahan believes a new management group needs to spend one year assessing its holdings before making hard decisions. In the summer, it’ll have been one year. With such a progressive management team, the future is bright in Toronto.
Go Leafs Go.