Eight straight losses in series-clinching games.
Eighteen straight playoff games without a goal from Mitch Marner.
A combined one goal between him and Auston Matthews.
A blown 3-1 series lead.
What does that all add up to? The most embarrassing loss in franchise history. Yup, it’s even worse than losing to a 42-year-old Zamboni driver who works for them. Worse than blowing a 5-1 lead to the Ottawa Senators. Worse than losing to a Vancouver Canucks team in their return from a COVID outbreak. Worse than “It was 4-1.” All of that does not compare to how inexcusable this year’s loss was and the Leafs can never live this down.
They were the favourites after winning their first division title in over two decades and having a player win the Rocket Richard trophy and absolutely dominated for three straight games. So to do that and then lose the series to a Montreal Canadiens team that was completely inferior on paper is the most humiliating defeat this team has ever experienced. And because it was such a shameful way to have their season come to an end, something needs to change.
If I am Kyle Dubas, I would not know where to begin on where I would make the first adjustment.
You could make a change in the coaching department, although they already altered who the guy in charge is and the move has still not turned into results. Realistically, Toronto could make a switch in who runs the power-play unit because it became clear as the season progressed that Manny Malhotra did not bring enough innovation to make the man-advantage unit work on a consistent basis. I think he can still bring a lot to the coaching staff so it would be wise to not fire him, but re-assign him to run the penalty-kill (which is an area he excelled at during his playing career) and find someone else to take over the power-play unit. I hear that Bruce Boudreau is still available.
They may think that a trade here and a free agent signing there will put their team in the best position for next season, but what else is there to try? Dubas was able to assemble the roster that aligned with his vision and utilized the playstyle he envisioned, and yet the results were still the same. There is no question that the roster is going to look different come October 2021 with Frederik Andersen gone and Zach Hyman’s future up in the air, but what other combination of players can Dubas and company put together before deciding that perhaps there is something else that is fundamentally flawed with this team.
This leaves us with the core group of players that highlight the best the Leafs have to offer. Matthews, Marner, and William Nylander have now played five seasons together and have nothing to show for it aside from four losses in do-or-die games. John Tavares is finished Year Three of a seven-year contract and is recovering from a devastating concussion that will take months (or years) to fully recover from.
Out of all four of the players mentioned, which three are the most worth keeping? Nylander proved to be a beast in this series so he’s not going anywhere. Tavares’ value as a captain is immeasurable and he has been a significant factor in their success during the regular season. Mattews is not only their best player but also one of the generational talents in the sport right now.
So while Marner is an excellent playmaker, cares deeply about wanting to see his team succeed, and is one of the best players in the league, he is the only player of the Big Four that would be the most likely to be traded in the coming months. You could turn him into multiple pieces that would help solidify the depth and change the makeup of the lines in a significant way. Perhaps the Leafs may send the Blue Jackets another call and see if there is a deal where Seth Jones is the returning piece. Or they could wait it out and hope a guy like Dougie Hamilton becomes available and then send Marner elsewhere for a different return.
If the Leafs decide to retain their core for next season and beyond, then the major change has to be how each one of them plays the game. They have gotten into this mindset that things will come easy to them and they can flip a switch in the final minutes to earn a less than deserved victory. It was an issue during the regular season and it carried over into the playoffs where it ultimately was part of their downfall. The other aspect of the equation is the careless mistakes and needless penalties that put them either down a goal or forced to kill another penalty. It’s what sunk them in Games Five and Six, and it’s why they were unable to force overtime for a third straight game.
Perhaps the big change can come in how the team treats the player’s mental health because the constant failure is bound to take a toll on even the more established players. Whether it be through meditation or through psychological therapy, the Leafs need to figure out a way to get all their players in the right head-space so that they don’t get in their own way as much as they have been for years.
No matter which direction they decide to in, there needs to be something drastically different about next year’s team because the status quo is not going to cut it any longer. Fans have, rightfully so, lost patience in the Leafs’ process and want to see action done towards getting the team beyond the first round for the first time in 17 years. It would not be surprising to see fewer fans pay close attention to how the regular season unfolds because it is all for naught if the postseason has the same result over and over again. The Leafs have lost the benefit of the doubt from the fanbase and the only way they can get it back is if they can actually win a round (whenever that may be). Being forced to sit on this demoralizing loss for months will force Toronto to reflect on why it happened again and what needs to be done this time to fix it.
This offseason is undeniably the most important in franchise history because the actions made will determine what the future has in store for this team. When they emerge out the other side, will they be a team that maintains the current state of affairs and hope next year has a different result, or do they try and alter how the team is constructed? Will they lean towards signing below-market value players for cheap and count on them to improve, or do they make a move akin to Masai Ujiri risking his legacy for one year of Kawhi Leonard?
Any way you slice it, something has to change with this team in a meaningful way because it has not worked and there are no signs that it will one day. They must never forget how humiliating this loss was or else they will never make progress in the playoffs with the core as constructed.