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The Leafs did make progress, but it was still not good enough

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Photo credit:© Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
6 months ago
It has been almost a week since it happened and it sometimes doesn’t feel real that the same outcome occurred yet again.
The Leafs have now played in 10 games with a chance to close out a playoff series and have failed to do just that. They have also played in five consecutive winner-take-all games and have lost all of them, becoming the first team to do so in the history of the NHL/MLB/NBA. The odds of this occurring are so rare (0.0036%) that they were more likely to accidentally win a series than lose five straight in this manner.
Being 18 years from their last series win, we are left with questions as to what went wrong and why the best Leafs team on paper couldn’t finish the job. Compared to last year, the stars were not the reason why this series was lost. This is especially true in Game 7 as all of the core four pieces played excellent hockey and could only get one goal past @Andrei Vasilevskiy (it should have been two but that’s a whole other story).
After the Leafs blew a 3-1 series lead to the Canadiens in an embarrassing fashion, I wrote about the need for the Leafs to make a big change because whatever it was that they were doing wasn’t going to cut it if they were to take the next step in their evolution. While we are sitting here waiting for the Leafs to win their first postseason series since 2004, there are both reasons to feel optimistic about their future and frustrated that nothing has changed. It’s a much better outcome than how things went a season prior which is what led us to this point.
Following that embarrassing loss, they replaced @Zach Hyman with @Michael Bunting, added @Petr Mrazek to shore up the goalie depth, and signed guys like @David Kampf and @Ondrej Kase to help round out the forward core. Aside from Hyman, some of the other big names that made their exit were @Frederik Andersen, @Nick Foligno, @Joe Thornton, and @Zach Bogosian. The Leafs clearly took to heart all of the mistakes and shortcomings that led to their downfall in 2021 and did what they could to ensure it would never happen again. And that’s exactly what happened during the regular season.
Minus a slow start in the opening few weeks and a slump in February, the Leafs finished with their best campaign in franchise history with 115 points. @Auston Matthews and @Mitch Marner, who were put under the microscope because of a lacklustre showing in the previous playoffs, played at an elite level all year long. The depth did not fall far behind (aside from @Nick Ritchie), the defence looked more sturdy than ever before, and @Jack Campbell was playing like a Vezina calibre goaltender. With little bullets in the chamber, the Leafs couldn’t do much at the trade deadline but were able to acquire @Mark Giordano, @Colin Blackwell, and @Ilya Lyubushkin for a reasonable price.
The team as a whole was a lot stronger on paper and were recording wins in all sorts of ways, no longer just relying on their offence to carry them through the regular season. And they were beating all the playoff-bound teams convincingly throughout the campaign which gave hope that the team would not keel over as they did in the past.
It seemed like a prime year for the Leafs to take a major step forward in their growth, but they first needed to get past the two-time defending Cup champions trying to create a dynasty.
The Leafs proved that they can elevate their game when matched up against some tough competition and did not give up until the final buzzer sounded. It was the first time since 2017 that there are genuine reasons to be proud of their efforts against a tough opponent. But as has been the case for three of the past four postseason appearances, Toronto held a 3-2 series lead and had a chance to finish off their opponent to avoid a Game 7 but failed to punch their ticket.
We could go in-depth about the intricacies of calls and scream into the abyss about the officiating being inconsistent, but we would not be talking about all of this had the Leafs closed it out. It is fair to argue that the high-sticking calls in Game 6 and the interference call on @Justin Holl moments prior to what should have been a @John Tavares goal were questionable and probably should not have occurred. Having said that, the Leafs could have just as easily made those two calls a moot point if they overcame those obstacles.
There were moments throughout the series where it felt like the universe was conspiring against the team and doing everything in their power to prevent a much-needed victory, but there were also moments where the Leafs made careless mistakes. @Kyle Clifford’s unnecessary hit in Game 1 put his team behind the eight-ball early and he was suspended for one game because of it. @Wayne Simmonds’ lack of discipline was one of the reasons why they lost Game 2, and he did not make another appearance for the rest of the series. Alexander Kerfoot had a night to forget in Game 6, most notably with his drop pass that led directly to an @Ondrej Palat goal. While all three are isolated incidents, these mistakes add up and a team like the Lightning will take full advantage of it if you give them too many opportunities to succeed.
By no means was this series going to be a cakewalk for the Leafs; the playoffs are not supposed to be easy. Yet there were legitimate reasons to believe they could dethrone a potential dynasty and it did not happen.
So now what?
The summer of 2022 will be a determining factor in both the immediate and long-term future of this franchise. Brendan Shanahan has already confirmed that both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe will be back for next season, so all three are safe for now. Both Shanahan and Dubas were on the same page during the locker cleanout about their assessment of the 2021-22 campaign: while they are happy with the group assembled, they are disappointed in the outcome but won’t make a change for the sake of it.
There are legitimate reasons to run the team back and give it another go because of how close they came to taking the important step in their ascension to becoming a legitimate Cup contender. But after six years of this core failing to go on a deep run, it wouldn’t be wise to not consider any way of changing the complexion of the team in a significant way that makes things better.
Nothing lasts forever and there are only a finite number of chances for the Leafs to get something out of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly at their peak.
The Atlantic Division will not get any easier next season as all of the teams surrounding the Leafs are making significant strides. We already know about the Lightning and Panthers, the Bruins will always be a threat even if they lose many parts of their core this summer, and the Sabres look primed to challenge for a Wild Card spot. The Red Wings continue to trend upward, the Canadiens will be taking @Shane Wright with the first overall pick this July, and even the Senators are getting better.
Simply put, Toronto is going to have its work cut out for them in order to remain ahead of the pack for 2022-23 and beyond.
Maybe the solution is to find a different option in the crease with uncertainty surrounding Campbell’s future. Perhaps it is replacing the departing @Ilya Mikheyev with prospects in the system like Nick Robertson and Matthew Knies.  It could possibly be trading out Holl, Kerfoot, and Mrazek to clear up some cap space and fill it in free agency. Or it could perchance be a major shakeup involving a notable name coming to Toronto (ex: @Jakob Chychrun).
Whatever Dubas and company decide to do this summer, they better make sure it is the correct one because yet another early exit in 2023 is not going to sit well and that means jobs will be lost and players will be traded.
I will close out this article by reusing the ending I wrote to a piece I wrote after the Leafs blew a 3-1 series lead as what was said then still applies now:
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?
Leafs fans should be happy with the important steps the team took this season and have erased some doubt regarding their ability to show up when the light shines brightest. But the same outcome occurred as has been the case for the last five years: they could not win a series-deciding game. It has left more questions and brought back tired narratives that many are exhausted to hear again.
We are left with a team facing a fork in the road at a critical point of the era that needs to ensure they are putting them in a better position to go on a deeper run. How the Leafs’ lineup look by the time opening night comes around will be an indicator of whether they were too complacent in the losses or made a knee-jerk reaction that will come back to haunt them (ie: @Nazem Kadri).
Either way, something has to give. Because while progress has been made, it was still not good enough.
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