Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews shoots the puck against the Washington Capitals during the first period at Scotiabank Arena on March 28.John E. Sokolowski/Reuters

Having beaten their fan base into dull acceptance, the Maple Leafs now have to pick fights with themselves.

On Tuesday, they played loosey-goosey against the New Jersey Devils and were beaten 6-3. It was the sort of hit-free, open-ice, back-and-forth game the NHL claims to aspire to and rarely achieves.

There were no boos at the end. Nobody left the building angry. They can’t all be classics.

Instead of taking that and moving on, the Leafs decided to create their own distraction.

Auston Matthews was the first out to talk.

“A little bit of an immature game from us,” Matthews said.

In hockey speak, ‘a little bit immature’ means ‘a complete failure at every level.’ Someone like Matthews doesn’t just drop that smoke bomb unless it’s part of a larger offensive.

A few minutes later, coach Sheldon Keefe picked up the same verbal stick.

“I thought we just overdid it. It was just really immature. Really immature all the way through our game. It was immature from our most experienced players and leaders. And then our players who are immature, our inexperienced guys, we made lots of mistakes.”

Clearly, a memo had gone out. Matthews tried to be subtle. Keefe hit it so hard, so often his transcript reads like an homage to Gertrude Stein.

They didn’t both just come up with the same idea at exactly the same time, and they must have known the effect it would have. That exchange dominated talk radio for the next 48 hours. This is transparently a team that will see your criticisms and will raise you.

Which leads one to wonder – are the Leafs finally achieving something that might be called self-awareness; or are they in the midst of outsmarting themselves?

The Leafs are arranged like a classic 1990s soap opera. The important thing is that the story never changes much. March ‘24 is like March ‘23 is like March ‘19. You can stop watching the Leafs for months at a time, tune back in on a lark and feel like you haven’t missed an episode.

The big story of this season isn’t their play. It never is.

The thing that got the most people talking was the re-signing of William Nylander. That should not be a story, never mind one requiring weeks of analysis and debate. But because it felt different, an obvious and mutually beneficial choice was worked over like the Warren Commission report.

Wait until this summer, when we’ll do months of ‘Should the Leafs sign Mitch Marner?’, a day of ‘The Leafs have signed Mitch Marner’, followed by a few more weeks of ‘Why did the Leafs sign Mitch Marner?’. Prepare to be riveted.

Knowing all that, the Leafs have apparently decided they don’t want to do their usual, half-confident, half-sleepy drift into the first round of the playoffs. This year, there will be adversity, even if it must be invented.

This might have worked better if John Tavares had played along. With Immature-gate starting to catch traction, the captain was asked about it.

One of the great things about Tavares as leader of the Leafs is that he can toss you a word salad for any situation. The things he comes out with are recognizably English, but they don’t make much sense. This has the effect of killing controversies dead.

John, how did the team manage to lose 46-0?

‘Well, obviously, every game matters so whenever we lose it never gets any easier and I am highly accountable for all those losses so we’ll work hard to …’

Do not listen to John Tavares while operating heavy machinery.

In Columbus, this is a marketing problem. In Toronto, it is a valuable form of crowd control. Tavares has never said anything that’s upset anyone – a small miracle given the conditions of his tenure.

But it didn’t work out this time. Tavares was in the best position to push the ‘immaturity’ boulder up the hill a little further. Instead, he started pulling.

How did he do that exactly? I’m not sure. I’ve listened to his explanation a half-dozen times and I still have no clue what he was getting at. But he refused to say the word, or accept that the team is less than playoff ready.

None of that matters now because the Leafs came out on Thursday and beat the tar out of the Washington Capitals. Everything’s fine. Until they lose again.

Then what’ll the word be? Soft? Lazy? There are only so many negative adjectives you can use in the NHL before you start a locker-room brawl.

Still, it’s better than letting the marketplace decide. There are three weeks left in the regular season – a dangerous window for a surly and increasingly bored fan base.

You can already see the conversational ditches that must be avoided:

While Marner has been out injured, Max Domi has thrived on the top line alongside Matthews and Tyler Bertuzzi. Should that continue? (Answer: Don’t talk about it.)

Matt Murray is skating again. Should he be in the playoff mix at the goalie position? (Answer: Never let that name pass your lips.)

Who would they prefer in the first round – Boston or Florida? (Answer: Oh God, not this again.)

No good can come of any discussion the Leafs have between now and the post-season. No wonder they’ve begun throwing out their own water-cooler topics.

It’s a dangerous pastime. If it doesn’t work out again, someone will wonder why a team Keefe’s coached for five seasons is still immature. Whose fault is that?

And why is Matthews called on to make these judgments in public? Where’s the captain? Wasn’t speaking truth to power supposed to be Tavares’s special skill set?

It would be easier to continue the Leafs’ usual late-winter drift into whatever comes next. In terms of job security, it’s worked so far.

That they’re doing something different does at least suggest someone has figured out that the same ol’ same ol’ doesn’t often lead to change. Is it possible that after years of this, even the Leafs are getting a little tired of the Leafs?

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe