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3 lessons the Toronto Maple Leafs can learn from the Blue Jays playoff failures

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Filipe Dimas
8 months ago
With the Toronto Blue Jays not only failing to advance to the second round, but failing to even win a single game in three straight postseason appearances, the Maple Leafs no longer seem like the city’s most inept playoff performer. While it is true that the Toronto Maple Leafs have had plenty of playoff failures of their own to learn from, sometimes it takes seeing things from an outside perspective to learn the right lessons. Today we’re exploring three lessons that can be learned and put into practice for this upcoming NHL season.

Lesson 1: Analytics should inform the big picture, not every individual decision

In the scope of team building, analytics are a proven and useful tool and ultimately the backbone behind decision-making for an organization. That being said, they are not gospel and shouldn’t inform every single individual decision. If analytics are the macrocosm of running a sports franchise, then the microcosm comes from in-game decisions made on the basis of game feel, gut instinct, and identifying what players got that dawg in ‘em at the moment. 
During the Blue Jays’ Game Two loss to the Minnesota Twins, the baseball world was left baffled when Manager John Schneider removed starter Jose Berrios after only 3 innings and 47 pitches. It’s an open secret that the decision was made before the game with the plan being to have Berrios pitch an initial pass through the lineup before bringing in lefty Yusei Kikuchi to counter Minnesota’s lefty-heavy lineup.
In a vacuum, the plan is a solid one as it identifies a strength of the opposition (left-handed hitting) and works to nullify it with a strength of Toronto’s (a strong bullpen). However, pro sports contests aren’t played in vacuums, and anyone watching Berrios pitch that day could identify that he was dominating the Minnesota batters, regardless of handedness.
It’s the second straight season that a pitcher was removed too early in the postseason leading to an early exit for the Blue Jays. While the analytics may suggest that pitchers should be given shorter leashes in the playoffs due to offensive output increasing once batters take their second or third at-bats against a starter, a manager’s job is to identify when to abandon the plan and allow hot-handed outlier to continue dominating. 
We saw both ends of this in the NHL playoffs last season when both the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers saw their starting netminders struggle. While the Oilers chose to keep sending out Jack Campbell because the larger picture says they should, the Florida Panthers decided to abandon Alex Lyon after only three games and instead turn to Sergei Bobrovsky, a netminder that both the analytics and eye test had long labelled as washed up. The result was an early exit for Edmonton while the Panthers cruised to the cup finals.
Analytics are a great tool, but letting them dominate every decision is a mistake.

Lesson 2: A team’s identity is built early in the season

The NHL, MLB and NBA share one common problem; the regular season is far too long. With over six months of mostly meaningless regular season games, it doesn’t take long to identify what a team’s identity will be when the playoffs roll around and the games that matter actually begin.
For the Toronto Blue Jays, the team’s strengths and struggles were clear early on. Pitching and defence were dominating while the offence was struggling to get hits with runners in scoring position. Lo and behold, the playoffs ended with a two-game sweep that saw an aggregate score of 5-1 with pitching and defense dominating while the offense struggled to get hits with runners in scoring position.
There’s an old adage that when someone shows you who you are, believe them. The same can be said about sports franchises. In the NHL, it’s well documented that the layout of the standings two months into the season is roughly what it will look like when playoff time comes around. If you’re not in a playoff spot by American Thanksgiving, chances are your team will be hoping to win the draft lottery rather than competing for the cup when spring rolls around.
For the Maple Leafs, this means that identifying struggles or points of weakness early on can go a long way in building the best team possible for when playoffs roll around. Too often in pro sports, teams rely on positive regression from struggling players to fix the problem themselves, yet as any Calgary Flames fan who watched the team last season can tell you, sometimes that positive regression just never comes.
With the addition of snot-filled players like Ryan Reaves, Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, the Maple Leafs enter this season with a potentially different game plan than years past. The first two months of the season will define whether or not the team’s identity has shifted towards the grittier, tough to play against squad that new GM Brad Treliving seems to value, or whether the players continue to fold against tougher opposition. Whatever the answer, believe them.

Lesson 3: Communication is key

Perhaps the most glaring part of the Blue Jays loss came after the game was over. The sheer number of Blue Jays players, including Bo Bichette and Whit Merrifield that spoke out against management’s decision to remove Jose Berrios was very telling of tensions rising within the organization. For the Maple Leafs, there have been signs of smoke that led to a similar fire. A number of former players have referred to the locker room and the bench as being quiet, and it’s generally accepted that a key reason behind the decision to sign Ryan Reaves was to help remedy that problem.
Poor communication has already plagued the Maple Leafs a number of times over the years. Dubas and Babcock famously disagreed on player deployment, and it seems like miscommunication was a large part of Brendan Shanahan’s decision to let go of Kyle Dubas entirely.
For a roster as talented as the Maple Leafs’, they can’t afford to let such a fixable problem be the reason this team continues to struggle within the organization. Improving organizational communication ensures that not only is everyone on the same page, but it can lead to an increased buy-in from all involved. 
Too often, both the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays have been criticized for seeming ambivalent and uncaring towards the games that matter most. Solving this issue should be priority number one moving forward, and it likely starts with an organizational conversation on what can be done by players, coaches, and management to give the franchise the best odds at winning the Stanley Cup and then moving forward with that plan as a team both on the ice and off.

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