One thing is not new: The Toronto Maple Leafs are out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This time comes at some point every spring, and this year, it came later than usual. The Leafs survived until overtime of the fifth game of their second-round series against the Florida Panthers, who scored to eliminate Toronto and continue a surprising run that started with the dispatching of the best team in NHL history. The Leafs really lost the series when they went down three games to none. Friday’s loss just formalized it. At least they won a round, something they hadn’t done since 2004, the last season before a salary cap arrived.
One thing, however, is new: The Leafs should panic. This year’s loss can’t be chalked up to The Leafs Being The Leafs or a young roster core’s time not having arrived yet. Toronto plays in a fishbowl, and various fans and media members who follow the team’s every move will always spot a crisis. The team of Canada’s biggest city is the object of endless speculation and tabloidy coverage, and it gets awkward when the Leafs aren’t actually doing anything wrong. But this time, a confrontational angle toward the team that hasn’t won a Cup since 1967 is appropriate. When the Leafs lost a seven-game series in the first round last year, against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the path forward was clear: Don’t change anything. The Leafs had built an excellent lineup, and they happened to fall short against a hard-to-kill championship team.
Staying the course is silly now. It’s not time to blow the whole thing up, but it is time for a controlled demolition of some of the Leafs’ structure. The franchise is seven years into an era that has featured star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander on the same team. It’s had another star forward, captain John Tavares, for five, and the same head coach, Sheldon Keefe, for four. The Leafs have made the playoffs every year since 2017 and have never won more than five of the requisite 16 games to lift the Cup. That’s a pretty silly run of futility. The hockey gods could not be any clearer that while the team has the front-line talent to win it all, they lack a good plan. Time to try something new.
In one real way, the team made progress this year: By at least getting past the Lightning in a rematch, the Leafs busted down the invisible but real psychological barrier between themselves and the second round. That’s something to build on, and it should only heighten the urgency of speeding up the progress from here. In the most encompassing terms, Toronto went from winning 18.75 percent of the necessary playoff games to 31.25 percent. But at least they’re no longer hexed on the ground floor.
Philosophically, it’s obvious what the Leafs have to do. They need to unload one of their big kahunas in their forward lines and use the trade return (and perhaps the related salary cap savings) to address a depth problem. Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander make about twice as much money (or more) than any other Leafs forward and commensurately do the team’s heavy lifting. All four of them scored at least 80 points this year, while no other Leaf reached 50. The Leafs’ third and fourth forward lines were a puck-possession disaster in the playoffs, repeatedly getting hemmed into their own zone and rarely taking the play toward the opposing goaltender. Bottom-six forwards are not supposed to be as good as their more expensive teammates on the first two lines, but they cannot be a liability for a team with Cup aspirations. The teams that win the whole thing are the ones that come in waves and continue to apply pressure even when their big stars are on the bench. The Leafs do not have that capacity, and the puck possession numbers for their overmatched third and fourth lines tell the entire story.
Someone with a huge stat line and huge contract needs to go, and the Leafs need to convert his absence into an ability to not get overrun when their remaining front-line forwards are not on the ice. Who to trade? Not Matthews; he’s the face of the franchise and the best player of them all. Not Tavares, either; he’s the captain and has a no-movement clause in his contract. That leaves Marner and Nylander. Marner has scored 99 and 97 points the past two years and would command a ransom even with a $10.9 million cap hit. Nylander has scored 87 and 80 points in those years and counts $7 million. The Leafs will get good and less expensive players in return for either, and they can use the haul to seal up some big cracks. Taking this painful step seems like the bare minimum for the Leafs to rejuvenate themselves.
The team has other problems. Maybe a Marner or Nylander trade will fix them, or maybe not. Goaltending is one. The Leafs have an expensive netminder, Matt Murray, who has been bad for years and is a prime candidate for offloading. The two goalies who played extensively in the playoffs, Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll, do not seem like the answer. (The evidence is that they both played extensively in the playoffs.) You can win a Stanley Cup with a random goalie who gets hot or provides you with a few solid weeks of backstopping. The Colorado Avalanche did it just last year. But the Avalanche had gobs of depth, which brings the Leafs back to their desperate need to trade a star and get more good players.
It’s a lot for the Leafs’ leadership to chew on. Speaking of that administration: NHL coaches get changed out like worn suit jackets, and it stands to reason that Keefe has a solid chance of not being back. He hasn’t been an allegedly abusive asshole like Mike Babock, the fired coach he replaced, but he also might not be the motivator or tactician the Leafs need. Kyle Dubas, the general manager responsible for figuring that out, is himself the apple of the rumor mill’s eye at the moment. The Leafs have big calls to make, and who knows who will make them or live with the consequences? The corporation that owns the team (and whose overlords sometimes fight with each other a lot) has much to figure out.
The Leafs were built to be dramatic. As they built themselves up in recent seasons, they created an incongruity. The team was incubating, slowly getting better and priming itself for a Cup run in a media and fan environment that would always prefer chaos. Blessedly, the franchise and its surroundings have converged. The world around the Leafs demands a mess. It’s finally clear that the Leafs have a big one.