Before even getting started into any of this, I want to take a moment as the Managing Editor of The Leafs Nation to thank all of you that chose to read our site over the past year. Coming out of the Montreal series last year it seemed easy to quit on the Leafs, and instead, we saw our readership grow to record numbers over the past year and that has taught me that “The Passion” is an authentic thing with the Leafs fanbase.
I’d also like to take a moment to thank the wonderful contributors to TLN. We’ve produced a ton of content this year and in my opinion been the most interesting source for Leafs news on the world wide web. This group has a bright future, and the fact that this season for the first time in site history we had credentialed coverage of the Leafs, Marlies, and the Growlers is a first for the site that I am very proud of, but can’t take any of the credit for. Couple that with great coverage of Leafs prospect, CBA knowledge that is second to none, Toronto Six coverage, and the ability to break down all things Leafs, this group got it done, and think that like the Leafs, they hunger to be even better next season. I know my work on improving the site for next season starts right now, and I’m already trying to put some exciting new things into action for you all.
Now, onto my final thoughts on the Leafs’ playoff “run”.
I’m going to go into full Dad mode with the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed angle.” The Lightning were very close to the Leafs in the standings, and if Point and Kucherov had been healthier this season, it’s very easy to see how they could have been ahead of the Leafs in the standings. The Lightning also had the luxury of using some of that cap space to be overactive at the trade deadline this year, something the Leafs might have been too reserved on (this isn’t a hindsight 50/50 thing, myself and others on the site were calling for this at the deadline too.) The point is that the Leafs, while a very good number 2 seed, faced about as strong a 3 seed as you could get, and this is before mentioning that the Lightning has won the previous two Stanley Cups. Still, the Leafs burned through any good faith in the previous two years by losing to Columbus and Montreal. Tampa might have been tougher competition, but the bar was set on this team needs to be raised to have better results regardless, they didn’t, even if it is understandable why.
Pointing fingers at players is even a challenge this year. The Leafs generally played well. You can look at Tavares having a slow start to the series, but he unquestionably came on strong later. Morgan Rielly had his established defensive gaps, but those are pretty well known and he wasn’t going to change. He drove the play he was supposed to, so I’m not prepared to fault him for not spontaneously developing a new aspect of his game. Getting mad at Justin Holl often seems pointless to me as well. He’s a solid enough defenseman and has a strong enough cast ahead of him on the depth chart that putting anything on him seems like a stretch. Ditto for Ilya Lyubushkin, who doesn’t seem like he’s going to be invited back, but was very serviceable during his time here. He just shouldn’t have been used in top pairing situations. Ever.
We can yell about reffing, we all saw what happened. We know it was bullshit, but we’ve also been here before. This reffing is nothing new to the NHL or the Leafs, and while we can maintain hope that someday it will be fixed, shouting about reffing is shouting against a brick wall, and overcoming bad reffing is part of what needs to be done, not an excuse to justify losing.
So truly, where does that leave us? The Leafs streak of being done before the second round will be 19 years next year. That means there will be people in the bar next year watching a Leafs playoff game that has never had a second-round game in their lifetime. And considering how much of the playoff futility has now happened on the watch of this Hockey Ops department, that’s not something they can ignore or dismiss.
The Leafs’ core isn’t rotten, but the salaries of the Leafs’ core do create some roadblocks to roster improvement. The supporting cast of the Leafs is solid, and I wouldn’t expect a roster blowup, but I’d expect that anyone not named Matthews, Marner, and Bunting to be at risk of not returning.
Keefe is at risk. Dubas is at risk. Shanahan is at risk. That said, if they aren’t back, I’d be shocked. You can find reasons to criticize any of them, but you can also see where they’ve delivered as well.
We’ll certainly be discussing this a lot, over the coming days, coming weeks, and coming months, so for now, I’d say statements like “believing in this group” aren’t going to fly this offseason. The group was very good this year, but we’ve probably moved past the point where it’s a matter of running the same group back time after time and waiting for their best results. The season provided a lot of hope after a Montreal series that left many of us feeling hopeless. This playoff series doesn’t leave me feeling hopeless, just wanting. Maybe that’s progress.
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