In the immediate aftermath of another Leafs’ playoff disaster, there is a reasonable temptation to say, ‘Burn it all’.
That would be satisfying. But it’s too late.
Toronto didn’t just lose both a game (3-2 in overtime) and a series (4-1) it should have won on Friday night. It lost to a bunch of no-hopers who’d just barely made the playoffs.
That the Leafs were handed an excuse – a disallowed goal in the second period that nearly switched the Scotiabank crowd to ‘riot’ setting – won’t help matters. All it does is obscure the truth.
Everything went wrong for the Leafs before and after the officials decided to go all Zeno’s Paradox with the idea of when a play is dead (apparently, whenever the referee imagines it so).
It was obviously wrong, but that doesn’t change the larger issues. The Leafs’ coach was outcoached, their stars were overmanned, their depth was outhustled, their goalies were outsaved. Presumably, the Panthers bus driver figured out a quicker route to the arena and the popcorn on their team plane was more delicious.
So now what?
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is without a contract for next year. Eleven days ago, you’d have said he was a lock to be re-signed. Now he’s a dead man professionally walking. In this town, at least.
Dubas has had five kicks at this can. If the Leafs team as it exists right now isn’t the fullest representation of his vision, then that is no one’s fault but his own. He built a good hockey team. It’s just not a good playoff hockey team. A lot of bark, precious little bite.
If Dubas had time owing on his contract, inertia might save him again. But how are you going to sell the idea of signing this architect to a new deal after we’ve just watched his half-completed cathedral collapse again?
If Dubas goes, coach Sheldon Keefe must follow. Same story. There’s nothing wrong with him as a coach. Smart enough guy. Players seem to like him. He didn’t wilt under the pressure in Toronto, but neither did he bloom. The Leafs need a front man who enjoys the cut and thrust. Keefe never has.
So now you’ve cut the head off the executive. Amazing. Presumably, you hire two more big hitters and they’re full of fresh ideas.
What exactly are these two new geniuses supposed to do?
Teach Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner how to be winners? Make John Tavares 27 years old again? Convince William Nylander that skating circles in the neutral zone may win figure-skating championships, but not the hockey kind?
All those boats have sailed. They’re so far out at sea, you’d need radar to spot them. There is no starting over without blowing this team into matchsticks. Does anyone in Toronto want to hear the word ‘tank’? Because that’s what we’d be talking about.
The moment you knew that Marner and Matthews have learned nothing these past six years came before Game 4.
Everyone knew this was it. At that point, the Leafs’ only goal should have been going out with some dignity. Think of all the people who stand to lose their jobs. Try not to make all about yourself.
Neither player could manage it.
“Can’t really focus too much on the outside noise, what you guys are saying, what everybody’s saying,” Matthews said. “It doesn’t really matter.”
Marner had two gos at it.
“We don’t care what you guys say. We don’t listen to you guys outside of this locker room. We’re just focus on ourselves.”
And then: “Don’t focus on outside noise. Don’t focus on social media.”
If you’re not focused on it, why are you always talking about it?
Do you recall Sidney Crosby, Mark Messier, Jarome Iginla, Scott Stevens or – you could list a hundred more guys – having a little strop about how unfair the media is to them personally 24 or so hours before a game that will define them as competitors?
You do not. Because those players were winners.
As currently constructed, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t winners. You can’t turn a guy who doesn’t want to be a winner into one by wishing it so.
If this Leafs team has had a motto it’s ‘Give it some time’. It worked for team president Brendan Shanahan in his own playing career, which is why he likes the idea so much. It took him 10 years in the NHL to win his first Cup.
The problem is raw material. Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander are not Shanahan, Yzerman, Federov and Lidstrom. It’s nobody’s fault. They just aren’t.
No president, no GM and no coach can make them so. They don’t have that special thing that Stanley Cup winners have. Years into their careers, they are no closer to having it. In fact, they may be further away.
But having gone this deep on a few guys, there is little choice but to continue.
And what will those players take from all this? That the refs screwed them. That nobody was nice to them and now they’re angry (or angrier). That this town doesn’t appreciate what it’s got. That maybe things would be better in Arizona or Dallas, where everyone leaves you alone. So, the usual Toronto thing.
As another season becomes a sinkhole and vanishes into the ground, the only Leaf I feel bad for is Morgan Rielly.
Rielly’s been in Toronto for 10, largely miserable, years. He has never once complained. He has bright and insightful things to say after every game, good or bad.
Rielly had a gruesome regular season this year and was pilloried for it by some sections of the fanbase. Come the playoffs, he was probably the Leafs’ best overall player.
Over a decade, Rielly has done that thing where you mature into a winner. Unfortunately, you can’t ask a defenceman to trade for five more guys like himself.