Another year, another first round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That seems to be a long-running joke for fans of the team after failing to advance to the second round of the NHL playoffs since 2004.
After six consecutive seasons of first round failures, the team and management is once again looking for answers.
While the series this year against Tampa Bay might not have garnered a cataclysmic reaction from the fanbase as others might have expected, and for good reason, this series was as hard fought as any of their other playoff missteps.
Following a blown 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadians during the 2021 playoffs, in which the deciding game seven saw the Leafs be bounced from the playoffs by their “supposed” bitter playoff rival with nothing but a whimper, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many supporters of the team, including myself.
The team had given up on themselves, management and the city and many fans lost the hope in this once young and hungry team because if they didn’t want to get up and play why should the fans care?
Kyle Dubas and his staff worked hard all summer to start mending the bridges that were torn down by bringing in savvy free agents to help fill out the depth of the team. Players like Michael Bunting, David Kampf and Ondrej Kase were looked as wildcard pickups in the offseason but has gone to show a glimpse of what Dubas can pull together to benefit this team with limited cap flexibility.
Not every single one of Dubas’ gambles have paid off however and in no means is he perfect, with the signings of Nick Ritchie and Petr Mrazek staining some of the fantastic work Dubas did over the offseason.
Mrazek has been a let down after signing a 3 year, $11.4 million contract he has been very underwhelming after posting a .888 save percentage and a 12-6-0 record. Mrazek was constantly out with injury and when he wasn’t his inconsistent and mediocre play would leave him as a liability more often than not.
Ritchie was brought in by Dubas on a 2 year, $5 million after spending his career split between the Bruins and Ducks. The former 10th overall pick hasn’t lived up to his lofty expectations panning out as a 25-30 point winger with a large frame and a good net front presence.
Ritchie was almost immediately thrown to the wolves as he started the season on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner but looked out of place with their quick pace of play.
His demotion to the fourth line and the emergence of Michael Bunting cemented Ritchie’s fate in Toronto as he was shipped off to Arizona a few weeks before the trade deadline in exchange for the lumbering Russian Ilya Lyubushkin for the back end.
Dubas constructed a genuinely great team, and while every team has its flaws this iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs certainly had them, it definitely wasn’t from the personnel.
The fatal flaw of the Toronto Maple Leafs was their lack of their attention to detail and in turn a “killer instinct”.
Game Five of the 2021 playoffs could’ve been the catalyst for the Toronto Maple Leafs to get over their first round demons. With the series at 3-1 in Toronto’s favour the Habs needed to push the Leafs back in Toronto to force a sixth game and keep their playoffs alive.
The Habs, as expected, came out flying as they cooked the Leafs for the best part of 30 minutes before the Leafs managed to erase a three goal deficit to send the game to overtime.
Alex Galchenyuk received the puck at the Leafs blueline before firing a spin pass that was intended to Alex Kerfoot, but instead his pass ended with a breakaway from Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki give Montreal new life in the series.
Hockey is a game of inches and if the pass to Kerfoot is 6 inches to the right the Leafs have a chance to ice the series, but instead they let the Habs burn through any comeback the Leafs had in mind.
The lack of detail and poor decision making has been one of the biggest flaws in the Toronto Maple Leafs game, and with a fast-paced and frenetic game plan, an errant pass in overtime could spell trouble and it did.
While the Leafs would have two more chances to close out the Montreal series, with the next game a near carbon copy of game five, the single most pivotal moment was the giveaway in game five as it allowed all of their playoff demons to come and haunt the team once again.
This season against Tampa Bay was, as expected, a much more back and forth affair. The Leafs had close to a year to work on and perfect the little details in their game, and while some mistakes were made along the way, as the series made its way to the sixth game and the Leafs on the precipice of shedding their “playoff demons” another lapse in judgement would precede the demise of their season.
Alex Kerfoot’s giveaway at the Leafs blueline while at four on four as Ondrej Palat streaked in for the opening goal might not have been the goal that won Tampa Bay the series right than and there, but it was surely the goal that showed the rest of the hockey world that the detail was still lacking in their game.
Much of the blame last season fell on the shoulders of the Leafs high-end talent in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner as their combined one goal and eight assists simply was not good enough for two of the teams premier players.
They both had a much improved series against the Lightning, with Marner playing as potentially the best player on the team, with his work at five on five, on the power play and on the penalty kill, he was starting to take his game to the next level.
Matthews also chipped in for four goals and nine points during the series, a drastic improvement over his last two playoff appearances, but as a result of him losing his footing at center ice it allowed the Lightning to attack the Leaf net with numbers during overtime in Game Six.
It is tough to be perfect all the time, and as much as some people think they are as much, no one can ever be fully perfect. With the Toronto Maple Leafs they put together what is arguably the single-most talented team put on ice in the history of the franchise, but with Kerfoot’s gaffe it went to show the level of quality between where the Leafs stand and where the back to back defending Stanley Cup Champions are, which is really close but not quite there yet.
Toronto will spend another summer reconstructing their team before they hit the ice again in October, and with MLSE keeping their faith in Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe for another season one must wonder how many more chances will this team be given before wholesale changes are needed.
This upcoming offseason will be one of the most important and influential for the future of the team as both Auston Matthews and William Nylander’s contracts expire on July 1st, 2023. Plenty of decisions will need to be made, especially if the Leafs are in the same spot come next season.
It is wise for the higher ups to keep their faith with this current core, but their time is limited if they don’t experience a single shred of success as Kyle Dubas has a lot of work ahead of him to maintain and potentially surpass the regular season success Toronto had this past regular season as fans should expect a host of new faces around the team in time for the new season.