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The Leafs showed they are capable, but changes are needed to achieve greatness

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Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
9 months ago
Eight days.
That is all it took to wipe away all of the goodwill that came from the Leafs getting past the first round for the first time in nearly two decades. Once Sam Reinhart scored the overtime winner to put the Panthers up 3-0 in the second round, it was a matter of when, not if, the Leafs would see their playoff aspirations end in disappointment. And for the fifth time since this era began, Toronto was sent packing in front of their home fans.
As the dust settles on another season of shortcomings in the spring, the Leafs simultaneously did and did not deserve to have the outcome they got in the second round.
Toronto got the bulk of the scoring chances and offensive zone time, which should have resulted in at least one instance of a game where they got more than two goals. Having said that, they made it too easy for the Panthers to execute their gameplan and Sergei Bobrovsky made more saves than both Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll could. It certainly did not help that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares each combined for a goal on 67 shots in this series when just a few more could have made the difference. Now why does that last sentence sound familiar?
Much like the past seven years of this era of Leafs hockey began, the same problems that prevented them from going on a run reared their ugly head in the second round. Their goalie was the second-best in the series, they crumbled against a team with a heavy forecheck, their seemingly lethal offence dried up at the worst time, and they lost the special teams battle.
What makes this loss sting a bit more is that the previous round saw Leafs win out in all of these areas despite getting outplayed by the Lightning. It demonstrated that this collective unit is capable of winning a round and going deeper into spring, but something is missing that has prevented them from achieving hockey immortality. So while the players may want to stay the course, changes are coming one way or another.
It’s easy to point fingers at who is to blame for the Leafs once again coming up short in the playoffs, but it’s a complicated answer with many layers to it.
It starts with the lack of quality depth on the left wing that was made apart once Matthew Knies went down with a concussion in Game 2. As crazy as it may sound, he has quickly become an integral component of the Leafs’ success and it was a night-and-day difference in how they played after he was sidelined. This is not to say Michael Bunting and Calle Jarnkrok were nonfactors because they both had their chances when slotted alongside the top four, but Knies going down meant having to rely on the likes of Alex Kerfoot to help fill the offensive gap and guys like him are simply not enough to get the job done consistently.
Toronto’s play at 5v5 was compounded by Sheldon Keefe’s questionable tactics and the usage of players who are not up to par to win in the playoffs. Justin Holl continuing to get heavy minutes despite being severely outscored whenever he was on the ice was the biggest offender, but sticking with an overmatched Mark Giordano and taking too long to split up the Jake McCabe-TJ Brodie pairing in Round 2 was another egregious error on defence. While the Knies injury certainly didn’t help matters, Keefe’s insistence on keeping the top line of Bunting-Matthews-Marner together despite not generating any goals until they were down 3-0 in the series would also prove costly.
The Leafs’ subpar record of 1-5 at Scotiabank Arena in the 2023 playoffs is also another reason why they bowed out in the second round. In all five losses, Toronto’s bench boss inexcusably kept losing the coaching battle to both Jon Cooper and Paul Maurice despite having the benefit of the last change. Keefe constantly getting outclassed by the opposing coach in the playoffs is nothing new, but to combine that with only two regulation wins in the playoffs is not a recipe for success and it’s not surprising that they are now golfing instead of gearing up for Game 6 tonight.
In terms of the special team’s battle, Toronto’s tendency to look for the perfect shot rather than putting the puck on the net whenever possible also contributed to their downfall. This shortcoming is even more damning when you consider that the Leafs did adjust their game plan midway through the Lightning series to look for long-range shots that could be deflected off a screen or generate a rebound which worked wonders in solving Andrei Vasilevsky. The players deciding to abandon their winning formula and go back to their old habits of short passes and long cycles with a lower shot output came back to bite them. By the time they adjusted their strategy in Game 4 to execute stretch passes to space out the Panthers, it was too little too late.
You can make all the excuses you want for the Leafs failing to get to the third round for the first time since 2002, but the reality is that this was a wasted opportunity for this core after six consecutive first-round exits came to an emphatic end off the stick of Tavares. Even if Matthews’ wrist was not sore, Knies did not get a concussion, Samsonov stayed healthy, or the Leafs got more power plays, it would not erase the fact that their actions on the ice resulted in them falling behind 3-0 and had to rely on a miracle that very rarely comes to fruition to keep their season alive. And yet, all that anyone is going to remember from this series is all of the missed calls, most notably the controversial decision to not allow Morgan Rielly’s goal despite clear evidence that the puck was in the net.
So after seven years of playoff shortcomings, the Leafs enter a pivotal summer with an uncertain future.
Out of all of the Leafs’ pending free agents listed above, I can see them retaining the majority of them. Noel Acciari has been a revelation for the bottom six and his playstyle will make him an easy bet to get an extension. The same goes for Luke Schenn, who was phenomenal in the postseason slotting primarily alongside Rielly. Ryan O’Reilly’s playoff experience proved vital in helping the Leafs get past the first round, and he likely would accept a hometown discount to remain in Toronto. Both David Kampf and Zach-Aston Reese have been a great fit on the fourth line while Pontus Holmberg should have no problem getting a qualifying offer.
The wild-card pick is Samsonov as while it is possible he could also get a qualifying offer, it all depends on if the Leafs believe Woll is ready for a full-time role and if they can shed Matt Murray’s contract. Samsonov is certainly going to get a pay raise for his strong play in the regular season and playoffs, but it is up in the air if he stays beyond this year. If I were a betting man, I would lean towards him staying and Murray getting traded, which makes room for Woll to join the team on a permanent basis.
Holl and Kerfoot’s future in Toronto remains unknown as it all depends on how the front office looks once free agency begins. While Bunting was a Calder Trophy finalist a year ago and is a perennial 50-point producer, his beef with officials and subsequent three-game suspension hurt his chances of getting an extension with the Leafs. Wayne Simmonds has likely played his last NHL game and won’t be returning, while both Victor Mete and Erik Gustafsson were mostly non-factors.
Deciding which of the current crop of free agents will stay or go is one thing, deciding whether to move on from one of the big four pieces or keep the band together indefinitely is a whole other story.
Heading into next season, Matthews and Nylander have one year remaining on their deals while Marner and Tavares are on the books for two more. The 2023 Playoffs were a stark reminder that the Leafs will only go as far as their top guns can take them, showing what they are capable of when on their game and how screwed the team is when they aren’t. Nylander has earned a larger payday with his continued growth throughout his deal, Tavares is going to see more decline as the years go on, and Matthews and Marner should be able to get what they want on their next contract.
Kyle Dubas did not have the foresight to predict a global pandemic halting the salary cap that limited what the Leafs could do after locking up the big four in 2019, but he or whoever is in charge will have the tough task of deciding whether to stick with the core guys who have failed to get it done or make a major shakeup and try something new. If it were up to me, I would stick with the other three and move on from Tavares, but his contract having a no-movement clause makes that nearly impossible to pull off.
Speaking of Dubas, his contract is set to expire in July and would easily be the top free agent for GMs if the Leafs don’t keep him on board. No doubt his five-year tenure to this point has been far from perfect, but he has improved over time and this past season saw him put the team in the best position they could to go on a run by going all in at the deadline. It’s not entirely his fault that it did not occur because the pieces he did bring in were key contributors in their series win over Tampa Bay. Despite having one year left on his contract, deciding what to do with Keefe is also going to be a vital decision for the team this summer. He has been one of the best in franchise history regarding regular-season success, but his tactics and adjustments have been mediocre in the playoffs as mentioned earlier and just one round win over four years simply isn’t good enough.
Regardless of what direction the Leafs decide to go, changes are coming for them because the team could not get it done in the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
There is no denying that they took a big step forward by overcoming their first-round demons and that it was an amazing moment worth celebrating. However, all of the positive vibes were zapped away in a little over a week by falling behind 3-0 to a team that finished 19 points behind them in the regular season and was one point shy of missing the playoffs entirely. Now the Leafs will have to sit on this loss for the next five months and dwell on why this core has yet again failed.
A combination of a lack of depth, inferior goaltending, losing the special teams battle, and failing to solve the opposition’s forecheck contributed to the Leafs’ downfall against the Panthers. They now face a murky future with many pending free agents both on the ice and in the press box, as well as a big decision to make with what to do with their most important pieces.
Progress in the playoffs won’t be enough to prevent the inevitable changes that are going to be made. While this team showed flashes of what they can do at their best, it once again was not enough to achieve greatness on the biggest stage.

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