Masai Ujiri waited five years before deciding that good enough was not nearly good enough.
Mind you, in those five years (2014-18) the Toronto Raptors were not exactly lying down to die at the end of each season. The team won four playoff rounds. It went to a conference final.
But there was a sameness to the way the Raptors ended each campaign – a meek surrender to a more committed opponent, followed by a bunch of feeble excuses, followed by more of the same.
You had flashbacks to those DeMar DeRozan-fronted teams Sunday night as you watched the Leafs do their desultory postgame pressers. This team had aspirations. They had just seen those aspirations pulled out of their hands, crunched up into a little ball and thrown back in their faces.
It’s a mug’s game expecting a certain kind of emotion, but you did expect some kind. Any kind. Instead, the leadership of the Leafs roster sat woodenly at a podium and blinked their way through the postmortem.
Morgan Rielly and John Tavares were bad enough. Tavares was given the “C” because he doesn’t say anything that might be twisted into a tabloid headline. But he also doesn’t say anything about anything else, ever. He is robotic in every way but his finishing.
On Sunday, the guy in charge needed to say something substantive about how this latest disaster unfolded. Find some soothing or angry words.
Instead, Tavares was up there breaking down nanosecond by nanosecond how he’d missed an empty net from can’t-miss-with-a-scattergun range, a play that would have changed the game.
In the Tavares telling, it wasn’t really his fault (“my hand slipped just a tad”).
Imagine if you made US$11-million on Bay Street and tried that one out – “I meant to press Delete, but I pressed Send instead and, you know, that’s how we went bankrupt. Could’ve happened to anyone.”
A few minutes later, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews showed up to sulk through their availabilities. The pair were leaned back in their chairs, alternately staring at the ground, mumbling inaudibly. They looked less like the future of the NHL and more like a couple of grade-schoolers who’d been called in to the vice-principal’s office.
Asked why this team cannot win in deciding games, Matthews stared into the middle-distance for a beat and said, “I don’t really have an answer for that question, to be honest.” Profound.
But coach Sheldon Keefe was the capper. Keefe seemed of two minds – either he was going to white-knuckle his way through this making little to no sense, or he was going to pop his lid. He went for option one.
Keefe threw someone under the bus, though you had no clue who he was talking about – “We had good performances from some people and we had a group of others who I don’t think performed at their best.”
He threw a few more people under the bus, and this time you were beginning to get a hint – “I thought we had enough out of the people who were important.”
Why play this guessing game? Your employees make a lot of money, as do you. Naming names and holding people accountable is your job. This isn’t a parent-teacher meeting. Or maybe, when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is.
Keefe’s highlight was putting the whole lose-miserably-again thing down to vicissitudes of cruel fate. After congratulating his (losing) team for playing a “patient game” in their victories, Keefe put down the two regulation losses to “[what] obviously are three somewhat lucky goals.”
So that’s what the Leafs need – a witch doctor. He can work on this whole luck thing while the rest of the squad continues to be patient and awesome.
If you tried this line of blather in another big Canadian market, they would boo you out of the room. If you tried it in a small American one, you would end up fired because, honestly, it’s too tedious to bear.
But it catches a sympathetic ear in Toronto because po-faced apathy and quiet suffering somehow passes for professionalism here. Any sort of actual emotion is taken for hysteria. The way in which we view the Leafs may be the last bulwark of this city’s Methodist roots.
Which rounds us back to the Raptors.
They did a whole bunch of these sorts of pressers. I remember in particular one DeRozan did on an off-day before the Raptors got staked in the heart by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018.
He did it leaned up against a wall outside a practice gym. He was propped at a nearly 45-degree angle, like he was getting vaporous and might collapse. You could smell surrender coming off him.
You simultaneously felt sorry for the guy (because he was so shattered) and not sorry (because he was making a ridiculous amount of money to give up year after year).
You got that same feeling watching the Leafs on Sunday night.
Ujiri traded DeRozan after that fifth failure. That swap – DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard – could well have ended in farce and cost Ujiri his job. But the Raptors boss had decided that taking a flier was better than knowing to a certainty that he would lose again.
Now, hockey is not basketball. One star doesn’t carry a club (though it’s been known to happen). There is currently no Leonard type floating around the NHL – a generational star who has temporarily poisoned his reputation and is available on the cheap.
But at some point, the reasons not to change become less urgent than the reasons to do so. Four years in to this circle of despair, the Leafs have reached that point. As currently comprised, they do not have it, whatever “it” means to you. They aren’t winners. No amount of wishing them to become so will make it happen.
Trading one of the big three will not make this team better on paper. But you don’t win Cups on paper.
You could come up with several good, strategic reasons to stand pat, and only one to begin hacking away.
That reason is not that this group can’t win a single playoff series. It’s that, having lost again, they can’t be bothered to pretend to be bothered.