No easy answers for Maple Leafs after yet another First Round exit
Sometimes teams can make bad decisions based on the result of a single playoff series or postseason run.
Those results can make teams believe they are closer to a championship than they actually are, leading to commitments to the wrong people. Or it can lead to teams believing they have problems that do not actually exist, and then getting rid of the wrong people. Weird things can happen in a best-of-seven series that are not always the most accurate representation of a team. A hot (or cold) goalie can dramatically change things. An unexpected injury. Just some random bounces and bad luck.
Basically, sometimes stuff (or a stronger word if you choose) happens.
This all brings us to the 2022 Toronto Maple Leafs who are again sitting here in the early spring trying to figure out everything that went wrong after yet another First Round exit.
Looking at it in a vacuum with no other context there is nothing majorly wrong with this particular Maple Leafs team. They had a great regular season, played well in a best-of-sevens series against a really good Tampa Bay Lightning team, and just did not get the result in a close, one-goal Game 7. They did not embarrass themselves, they did not get run out of the building every night, and it was not a miracle that they were here.
In most circumstances, fine, bring that team back mostly unchanged, give the coach and general manager another chance, and see if you can get a better result. Maybe you will. Chances are you actually will.
[Related: Tampa Bay Lightning beat Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7]
The problem is we have all seen this movie before. We have seen it so many times that we knew exactly how it was going to go, so much so that you could literally script it out step-by-step, game-by-game, moment-by-moment. Because it happens every. Single. Year. The same way. At some point when you keep finishing in second or third place in your division, and you keep losing in the First Round, and you keep doing so by collapsing with 3-1 or 3-2 series leads, that is simply what you are. That is what you are capable of.
The expectation should not be a Stanley Cup every year, or reaching a certain point, or even advancing every year. Sometimes you lose and there is no specific reason for it. Stanley Cup or bust mentality is setting yourself up for disappointment, even with the very best teams. But it is not an unfair expectation to want this Maple Leafs team to accomplish something with this roster.
“Win a round” is not setting an unreachable, unfair bar for a team that has superstars all over its roster, including a 60-goal scorer and likely MVP winner.
Anything. Even the smallest possible achievement that makes us believe some progress is being made. Beyond that, this is not even a Stanley Cup or bust mindset here. The bar for this Maple Leafs team right now is actually very low (too low, considering the talent). If they had beaten Tampa Bay and then lost to Florida in the next round this season would have been viewed as, mostly, a success, and nobody would have questioned bringing it all back. There would have been no overly harsh criticism because they actually cleared that first hurdle and progressed. They can not even reach that.
Before the Lightning won their past two Stanley Cups, they were at least making the Eastern Conference Finals almost every year (and a Stanley Cup Final!) before losing in soul-crushing fashion to the the team that would always go on to actually win the Stanley Cup. They were right on the threshold of greatness. They just could not go that last inch.
When the Alex Ovechkin Capitals were getting destroyed for not being good enough, they would at least regularly finish with the league’s best record and win their division every year, and then win a round before losing to Pittsburgh in the Second Round every year.
Colorado wins its division and at least a round every year before it fizzles out.
There was always something tangible accomplished with those teams.
But in six years what has this Toronto team done that it can point to as a reason to keep running it back?
No Presidents’ Trophies. The only division title was the shortened season, North Division all Canadian team division. No series wins.
It was said during the TV broadcast on Sunday night that sometimes the First Round can be the toughest hurdle to overcome, but since the start of the 2016-17 season there have been only eight other franchises (excluding Seattle) that have not won at least one playoff series. Those teams are Arizona, Buffalo, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, New York Rangers, and Los Angeles. The Rangers and Calgary could remove themselves from that list on Sunday night. That is not really the type of company Toronto wants to be keeping. Or should be keeping.
[Related: 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, TV Info]
Yes, the Atlantic Division is very good. And yes, sometimes the Maple Leafs get tough draws in the First Round. But they also got draws against Columbus and Montreal the past two years, teams they were HEAVILY favored against. And lost. Of the five previous teams that knocked then out none of them went on to a championship that season (though, to be fair, two did reach the Final) while three of them went on to lose in the very next round. They are not always running into unstoppable buzzsaws.
This is what the Maple Leafs are. A very good team, probably a top-10 team that is going to make the playoffs every year. But beyond that, they are not a championship level team or an elite team as currently constructed, built, and run. We know that because they keep showing us what they are every year. With alarming consistency and precision.
What do you do to fix it? This is where things get difficult. Tearing it down to the ground would be nonsensical.
You are not going to trade Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner. They are too good.
You are not going to trade William Nylander. He is too much of a value against the salary cap (and too good).
But beyond, nothing should really be off the table on or off the ice. The front office has been far from perfect with a lot of its roster moves. The depth was fine during the regular season, but got badly exposed against Tampa Bay in the playoffs, as the Lightning absolutely took a sledgehammer to them territorially when neither Matthews, Marner, or Nylander was on the ice. John Tavares is a fantastic offensive player but has done nothing to advance the franchise, and is mostly an $11 million per year luxury they do not need. And his contract is unmovable (by way of a no-movement clause, and the fact nobody else will want it).
The Maple Leafs are a good team that still has a lot of problems. Nobody should expect those problems to go away and the results to change by continuing to bring everything back. Whether it is major changes to the roster, coaching staff, or front office, something eventually has to give here. The status quo can not be good enough for this team at this point in its development.