What more could the Toronto Maple Leafs do?
They have put together one of the most talented teams in hockey. They have a roster with no big holes and a cartoonish amount of firepower at the top. Their best players are old enough to have entered their primes, but young enough that they could have many more years near their peaks.
This weekend marked the latest installment in more than five decades of crushing playoff exits—at least in the years when the Leafs make the postseason. Toronto had a 3-to-2 series lead on the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. And they led Thursday’s Game 6 in Tampa by a goal entering the third period, before letting the Lightning tie the game and win it in overtime, on a play that started when Toronto’s best player tripped over the red line.
It got worse on home ice on Saturday, when the Lightning scored a go-ahead goal in the second period and then blocked what felt like a thousand shots in the third to win 2-1 and eliminate the Leafs.
The sadness has piled up. It has long been a running gag for every other NHL fanbase that the Leafs have not won a Cup since 1967, but what has happened over the last six years feels unreasonably cruel. On multiple occasions, the franchise has had playoff advancement in the palm of its hands only to squander it each time. The Leafs have now exited in the first round six years in a row. (Or sooner. They lost in the “qualifying round” in the NHL’s COVID bubble in 2020.)
The Leafs now find themselves in one of the most torturous niches in sports: It is not at all clear what they should change, but the playoff disappointment has become such an avalanche that team brass will feel understandable pressure to make a bunch of moves anyway. Short of wearing different jerseys and hypnotizing players to think they’re employed by a team outside the Toronto city limits, there are no obvious remedies that would get one of the best teams in the NHL over this massive hump. So, they will have a rough choice: Make structural changes to what should by all rights be a contender every year for the next five, or risk going down as the definition of insanity and making it seven of these gory exits in a row.
To understand the dilemma that will confront the Leafs this summer, you need to understand two things. First, how good this team is, and second, how excruciating this team is.
How good are the Leafs? So, so, so good. Auston Matthews, 24, is one of a trio of generationally talented, game-changing forwards. Matthews scored 60 goals this season, and he has 259 in six NHL seasons and is well on his way to first or second place on the all-time goals leaderboard for American players. (Dual U.S.-Canadian citizen Brett Hull, at 741 goals, is the only guy with much of a chance at staying ahead of a healthy Matthews.) Mitch Marner, 25, arrived when Matthews did and has had a couple of 90-point seasons in his first six. John Tavares, 31, is (like Matthews) a former No. 1 overall pick and was the New York Islanders’ franchise cornerstone before the Leafs absconded with him in free agency in 2018. Morgan Rielly, 28, has been one of the league’s highest-scoring defensemen for the last five years. That collection of standout individual talent came together to form a regular-season juggernaut. The 2021-22 Leafs totaled 115 points in the standings, 10 clear of any other team in franchise history and fourth-best in the league.
How excruciating are the Leafs? The best way to describe it is that what just happened—a blown series lead and one-goal loss in a home Game 7 to the back-to-back Cup winners—was maybe not the most devastating playoff loss of their last decade. That could be either one of two come-from-ahead Game 7 losses to their rivals the Boston Bruins: one in which they led 4-1 in the third period and lost in overtime and another in which they gave up four goals in the third.
Whichever of these losses was the worst is beside the point, though. They have all been debilitating, because they’re all bullet points on one of the sports world’s longest, saddest lists. The Leafs’ last Cup-winning season, 1967, was the last one in which the NHL had just six teams. The league grew to 12 the next year, on its way to the current 32, and the Leafs have never won in that more expansive world. It has not been for a lack of trying. They were big spenders and regular contenders in the years before an ownership lockout canceled the season in 2004. When the NHL resumed, it did so with a salary cap, which nuked the Leafs’ roster and sent them into the wilderness for a decade.
So, what comes next? Leafs fans are resilient, and it’s unlikely they’ll become so jaded en masse that they stop showing up to support their team. The Canadian hockey press can be brutal, and certainly will be with the Leafs in the weeks to come, but columnists don’t decide who gets traded. The man in charge is (probably) the general manager, Kyle Dubas, because there’s no hothead in the owner’s box who might blow up the roster (or not) on a whim. They’re part of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a conglomerate whose directors are appointed by other massive companies that own stakes in MLSE (and thus the Leafs and the NBA’s Raptors). One of the company’s two biggest shareholders is Rogers Communications, the telecom giant that is in the midst of its own real-life Canadian Succession drama.
There is a lot pointing toward the Leafs maintaining the status quo, as weird as that would look on the surface. Goalie Jack Campbell, a 30-year-old journeyman who had an excellent season, is a free agent-to-be. But the Leafs’ other top-flight players are all signed not just for next season, but well beyond. The franchise has hitched its wagon to the Matthews-Marner-Tavares-Rielly core and also given a big contract to scoring winger William Nylander. Of that group, only Tavares and Rielly have contract clauses that could block trades, but it would be absurd to trade Matthews and almost equally weird to send out Marner. A coach-firing is always an option, and Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe arguably deserves it for one very silly postgame quote, in which he bragged about how much respect the Lightning had for the Leafs after they beat them. The problem with that plan is that Keefe has won a lot in three years.
It sometimes makes sense to just push forward with who you’ve got. That was more or less how the Washington Capitals did it. Despite not winning a Stanley Cup for the first 12 seasons of all-time great goal scorer Alex Ovechkin’s career, they kept on riding with a few core players: Ovechkin, centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman John Carlson, and goalie Braden Holtby. It paid off in 2018, when they won the whole thing. Just as I will keep picking Gonzaga to win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament every year until it finally happens, there are worse ideas than continuing to hit the rest of the NHL with a battering ram of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and crew.
On the other hand, there are reasons for pessimism, even beyond the fact that at this point the Leafs’ logo is a half-empty glass. Matthews is incredible, but the odds are against him getting a lot better. (In scoring terms, it’s hard to go up from 60. Only one player, Ovechkin with 65 in 2008, has beaten that since the lockout.) Tavares is still great, but he’s on the wrong side of 30. The Leafs were able to find effective goaltending this year, but they don’t have a long-term star in net, and the position has a tendency of torpedoing even a great team in the playoffs.
Maybe a few trades below the top of the roster are in order. Maybe firing the coach could spark something. Or maybe all of this makes for an absurd conversation given how effective Toronto has been for the last six regular seasons. But absurdity doesn’t rule anything out, especially if the Leafs feel desperate to squeeze a deep playoff run out of Matthews’ best years.
It all adds up to a fraught, miserable summer and a fraught, miserable 2022-2023 regular season, until the Leafs get a chance to avoid making it seven early withdrawals in a row. Anything they do or don’t do will feel like a possible step closer to the doomsday of turning a golden era into lead. If there is any comfort here at all, it’s that the Leafs and their fans have 55 years’ experience living in a hell that looks a lot like this one.