Good but not good enough: a look at how the Maple Leafs got here and why it’s time for change

Photo credit:Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
When you brand your players the “Core Four” and split $50M a year between them you are advertising that there are big expectations for this group. Money might not matter on the ice but it has mattered over the past few seasons of roster construction and as soon as COVID hit and froze the salary cap the Leafs had no choice but to be in the Core Four business.
Spending money on Tavares shouldn’t have been an issue. Overpaying on UFAs was kind of how things worked until it didn’t. Paying for potential made sense too and while there was no shortage of people in the moment saying giving Mitch Marner $11M was a bad idea, it was supposed to be a bad idea the way that giving Leon Draisaitl $8.5M AAV was a couple of years earlier and soon it would start looking like market value (but maybe never the bargain that Draisaitl turned out to be.)
The Leafs have run it back consistently since the pandemic, sometimes out of belief in this group but also out of the absence of choice. There hasn’t been money to overhaul the defence, the Leafs have gambled on “good enough” goaltending due to the lack of true game-breaking options becoming available and largely due to the bond between Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe, there has been a reluctance to make a coaching change. Maybe it made sense when the coach and GM were on the same page about the roster, but under Brad Treliving the case for Keefe behind the bench has disappeared.
You can count me among those calling for Keefe’s dismissal last summer but the mismanagement of the Hockey Operations department once again forced the Leafs to run it back. Brad Treliving was a “best of who was left” hire who then inherited a coach in a similar type of market for that decision. The Leafs could move on from Keefe and gamble on whoever was left in the coaching market. The easy option was to wait and see and Treliving took it.
Brad Treliving was in a rough situation with having not much to go on other than knowing Toronto’s recent history of getting pushed around and attempted to build around the Core Four in that fashion, and also adding John Klingberg for reasons that remain impossible to justify. He was given the difficult task of making the Leafs better before he even knew what he had and it’s not surprising he faltered.
This is by no means giving Treliving a pass as he dug himself further holes with his philosophy around not building teams in-season. Treliving has struggled through his time in Calgary with that mindset and I’m not sure you get to take your foot off the gas, especially when it likely wasn’t until two months into the year he had enough of a look at his product. It’s a hockey team, not a slow cooker, I’m pretty sure hustling for 12 months straight is how you get it done.
What was worse for the Maple Leafs is that age has caught up to T.J. Brodie and is aggressively chasing down John Tavares. The Leafs as they are built could not afford to have two top players noticeably decline and that was something Toronto lived through in 2023-24.
Brodie‘s time in Toronto has come to an end but there is still one more year of $11M John Tavares before his contract is rightsized or he is shown the door. He might be a lock for the 2024-25 Maple Leafs but his role as 2C and his captaincy are not. There is a lot of good hockey left in him if the organization approaches him as a reliable top-six left winger. (Think Patrick Marleau before the Toronto years.)
Changes in the offseason are easier and if Brad Treliving truly thinks this is his window to get things done, he has his work cut out for him once again. The decisions haven’t become any easier and while he enjoyed a year of a large portion of the Toronto market being happy that he wasn’t Kyle Dubas, that novelty wore off at the trade deadline as Treliving slapped a bandage on the shotgun wound that is the Leafs defensive situation.
The Maple Leafs have always been flawed but Treliving inheriting Shanahan/Dubas’s vision on short notice and having to execute a hybrid version of it was always doomed to fail. There might have been moments of optimism throughout the year courtesy of Matthews and Nylander in the points department or the emergence of Bobby McMann, or when it seemed that Domi and Bertuzzi finally got it. There were always underlying issues not far from that and entering the playoffs as underdogs against either the Bruins or the Panthers, it seemed it was always about hoping the Leafs would figure it out rather than trusting that they were better than their record.
Fast forward to this summer, the Leafs find themselves in a situation where they have numerous good pieces, but decisions need to be made on whether there is better talent or better fits out there. Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi ended up looking like wins for Brad Treliving, but with the state of the Leafs’ blueline, there need to be questions asked about where the available cap space is best spent.
Players like Jake McCabe and Calle Jarnkrok have been good, but are they the best fits for the Leafs? They could be pushed down the lineup card to more suitable roles or they could be shown the door via trade to find better fits for the Leafs. Similar decisions will need to be made on Dewar, Robertson, Benoit, and Liljegren while players like Reaves and Kampf just look like expensive depth a cap team shouldn’t be wasting their time with. It seems like there were numerous gambles made on players being able to break out and it didn’t happen, or at least not to the extent it needed to.
Losing in the playoffs isn’t the shock it was when Toronto lost to Montreal or last year against Florida, or the play-in series against Columbus. This was an “anything could happen” type year where the team required someone to step up to be successful. No one did.
After different tweaks on the same approach for half a decade, it’s time for something new. The salary cap is going up and the final Core Four contracts will be expiring soon. The Leafs need to head down the path of change, rather than burning through May conducting an autopsy, they should start as soon as the handshake line has been completed.
This was originally written after Game 4 so I guess kudos for the Leafs for delaying the publication.

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