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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Separating emotion from reality in another lost season for the Leafs

Well, here we are again. Lamenting another disappointing finish to a Leafs season in which they failed to live up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon them.

The repeated failures are enough to wear on anybody that cares about this franchise, whether it be the die hard fan base or the people within the organization. Hockey is an emotional game for all parties involved and it’s only natural to have emotional reactions to what happens on the ice in any given moment.

All the reasons we love this sport and love this team are the same reasons it can hurt so much when things don’t go our way, and reacting to those ups and downs is what being a sports fan is all about. But it can’t be that way for the people entrusted with running the organization, namely Kyle Dubas.

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If you’ve been scrolling through social media at all since the Leafs season came to an end, you’ve seen fans offer up just about every member of the current roster as some sort of sacrificial lamb in their fantasy trade proposals. An argument can be made for moving almost anybody for the proper return, but basing that argument on the results of 5 games in August would be poor process. If we know anything about the current Leafs regime, it’s that they are very process oriented and aren’t prone to knee jerk reactions.

One of the most important traits in a general manager is being able to eliminate emotion from the decision making process. Mistakes can be made when teams sign an aging, declining player for sentimental reasons or when they make rash decisions in times of frustration. Some changes surely need to be made but they can’t be made based on an emotional reaction to a handful of games in which the Leafs shooting percentage cratered.

The Leafs shot 1.97% at 5v5 in this series, an incredibly low and unsustainable mark for any team. Never mind one loaded with offensively gifted players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly… you get the point, and these guys will get theirs too. 

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It’s understandable that fans don’t want to hear about puck luck or getting “goalied” after yet another agonizing defeat and wasted season for the Leafs young core, but both of those things were significant factors in the outcome of this series. Making a move that alters the core and very vision of the organization for those reasons could prove disastrous.

This roster isn’t without it’s flaws. The defense fared adequately, albeit against a Columbus team that struggles to generate offense, but Leafs management knows they don’t have enough talent or the proper mix on the defensive depth chart moving forward. The impending departures of Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci in free agency will ensure a much different look on the Leafs blue line next season.

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The bottom six forward group never gave the team enough this season – on the scoreboard or otherwise – and when the big guns weren’t making up for it, the Leafs had little chance at victory. Outside of Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, and Hyman, the only Leafs forward to register a goal in the play-in round was 18 year old Nick Robertson. 

Goaltending was a problem all year and while Frederik Andersen can hardly be blamed for losing a series in which his team was shutout twice, he was yet again the second best goaltender in a playoff series. As he was prone to do this season, the first goal he allowed in the series was a back breaker in a tightly contested game 1 that propelled Columbus to an early lead in the best of 5 matchup. He capped it off by allowing another stinker with the Leafs pressing for the tying goal in the final minutes of the deciding game, a moment symbolic of his Maple Leafs tenure.

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Dubas and company will have their hands full as they attempt to address these shortcomings while navigating a salary cap that will remain flat in the coming seasons. The most likely course of action this offseason will be trying to exchange some forward depth like Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen for help on the back end but that doesn’t mean a bigger move is off the table. Leafs management will pursue all avenues as they look to compile a roster that can get this team over the hump but they will do so with the long-term interests of the franchise as their primary focus.

Our hearts are telling us that this was more of the same old Leafs, unable to play up to their capabilities when it counts. But the reality is they carried the play for much of this series and put themselves in a good position to come away victorious with the way they generated scoring chances and limited opportunities for the Blue Jackets. Sometimes the pucks just don’t go in. I have trouble believing that will be a consistent problem for a team that has finished top 5 in goals scored in each of the last 3 seasons.

That’s of little consolation to Leafs fans and likely doesn’t make anyone feel better about what transpired in recent days but the fact remains that this is the kind of talented, young core that Leafs Nation has dreamed about for decades. Blowing that up right now simply for the sake of change would be incredibly short sighted.

Whether you agree with all of Dubas’ team building philosophies or not, you can rest assured that he won’t allow the anger and disappointment he felt in the dying minutes of game 5 or the bitterness he’s sure to feel in the coming days dictate the way he goes about trying to improve this roster – and that’s a good thing.

He and his management team will have plenty of time to analyze the deficiencies on this roster before the NHL’s offseason gets underway and how they move forward will be determined by the big picture this group has illustrated over the last few seasons, not 5 games played under the strangest circumstances the hockey world has ever endured. 

 

(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com)