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Looking away from the chaos and at the big picture

The Toronto Maple Leafs have found a new rock bottom.

After putting forward an excellent effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins that resulted in a commanding 4-0 victory, it seemed the team had turned a corner from the ugly, listless loss they suffered a couple of days earlier against those same Penguins. That wasn’t the case.

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The Leafs hosted the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night. The stage was set. Two teams both fighting for the playoff lives. But only one team had the effort and desire that matched that of a team with any sort of desperation. You obviously know the story by now. It’s one that’s going to be talked about for a really long time.

The Hurricanes had both of their goaltenders get hurt and they had to turn to the Marlies’ Zamboni driver to play the second half of the game. The Hurricanes completely locked down, putting forward an incredible showing that made them look like a legitimate contender. The Leafs only managed two goals on the 42-year-old practice goalie.

Move over, 1967 and no Stanely Cups since expansion and no playoff series wins since the salary cap. Say hello to can’t beat your own Zamboni driver. You thought that loss to the Penguins was bad? No, this is rock bottom.

So, where do you go from here?

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Even after all of that, the jokes and the embarrassment and the jersey that got thrown on the ice, this didn’t end the season. The Leafs are technically still a playoff team.

The Panthers couldn’t capitalize and make up any ground because they lost to Vegas. As much as Leafs fans have complained about the current playoff format, it could be their saving grace this year. The only way Toronto can lose their grip on third place in the Atlantic Division is if Florida steps up and takes it from them. Honestly, the way things are going for the Panthers, it doesn’t look like that’s even going to happen.

The bigger question is one that Kyle Dubas has to answer. Last night’s loss might not really end up meaning much in the grand scheme of the season because it’s just two points, but the team certainly sent a clear message about what they’re all about as a team. Something is clearly wrong with the Leafs. It’s up to Dubas to figure out exactly what that is and how he can solve it.

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With something as emotionally-driven and in-the-moment as professional sports are, it’s sometimes difficult to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. While the team came into the 2019-20 season with legitimate contention aspirations, things haven’t worked out for the Leafs.

No, this isn’t because they couldn’t beat a Zamboni driver, it’s everything. It’s the inconsistent efforts, it’s the shaky blueline and defensive play, it’s Freddy Andersen’s uncharacteristically poor play, it’s the constant injuries to key players and inability to ice the ideal roster. It’s just not the Leafs’ year.

And that isn’t necessarily the end of the world. I mean, it seems like it is right now, because as we’ve already established, the team finally hit rock bottom this year. But this isn’t the end of the Leafs’ contention window. There’s a sense of urgency to compete in Toronto because people are restless. They did the tank and the rebuild and paid their dues with back-to-back-to-back first-round losses. This is now Kyle Dubas’ roster and it’s his coach, too. It’s time to start seeing some success.

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But there isn’t urgency because the window is about the slam shut. It’s not like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are in their early-30s soon to head to free agency. This is still a relatively young team working through its kinks in order to find its identity. There’s still room to grow and improve. There’s also a brand new slate next year to rebound.

Think back to 2016-17. The Tampa Bay Lightning came into the season as Stanley Cup contenders. They had lost in the Cup Final in 2015 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2016. After signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman long-term in the off-season, 2017 looked like a year they could get over the hump.

Instead, Tampa ended up missing the playoffs despite putting up 94 points in the standings. They suffered a major blow as Stamkos missed the majority of the season due to injury and Ben Bishop ended up having an uncharacteristically mediocre season. Rather than try to scramble to force the team into the playoffs, Steve Yzerman bit the bullet and regrouped for the following year. All of the key players had already been locked up, so there was no reason to force anything. It just wasn’t Tampa’s year.

He dealt Bishop at the trade deadline and acquired Erik Cernak in return. He also dealt away Bryan Boyle, Nikita Nestorov, and Valtteri Filppula in order to stockpile some draft picks. Then, in the off-season, he pulled off a big deal, sending Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for Mikhail Sergachev.

The Lightning would come back the following season and put up a franchise-high 113 points in the standings. They came within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. The year after, they won the Presidents’ Trophy with a 128-point season, though it ended in a shocking first-round loss. This year, again, Tampa is one of the best teams in the league. Most people don’t even remember their failed 2016-17 season.

The Leafs and the Lightning aren’t the same team and the comparison isn’t perfect but the moral of the story is still there. The Lightning had some tough luck and missed the playoffs in a season in which they were supposed to contend and it wasn’t the end of the world. Yzerman bit the bullet, made improvements over the off-season, and the Lightning came back the following season better than ever.

Despite the overwhelming pressure on Dubas right now, that might be the best play for the Leafs. Sell off where you can at the deadline and give yourself some ammunition to work with over the off-season to fix the areas of the club that has proven to be areas of need. Your core is locked up long-term, so the window isn’t slamming shut this year. I mean, hell, you can still sell off some pieces and make the playoffs, just like St. Louis did with Kevin Shattenkirk a few years ago.

Don’t scramble to force something out of nothing right now. Take a step back and look at the big picture. As much as nobody in Leaf Land wants to hear it, there’s always next year.