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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe congratulates forward Mitchell Marner and forward David Kampf during the second period of game one of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on May 2.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

If losing is the path that leads to winning in the NHL the Toronto Maple Leafs should be champions by now. Yet the players report for physicals on Wednesday having made no real progress over the past half-dozen years.

“Hey, we lost better this time!” is not a war cry but a whimper.

The Avalanche, Lightning and others have used postseason frustration as a point to rally around en route to capturing the Stanley Cup.

And if that is the case, the teams closest to a breakthrough this season most likely are the Oilers, the Panthers, the Flames and the Rangers.

Each won at least one playoff round in 2022 – and Edmonton got as far as the conference finals.

At some point the apologists for Toronto’s lack of success will get it right and pretend they knew “This is the year of the Maple Leafs” all along. With the first day of training camp on Thursday and the opening exhibition games on Saturday, the familiar refrain has already begun.

Yet, they were eliminated in the first round again last season for the fifth time in six years. In the other, they lost a play-in series to reach the postseason.

So exactly how is that any better unless wearing blue-and-white-coloured spectacles?

On Monday, an oddsmaker made Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe the favourite to be the first coach in the league to be fired during the coming campaign.

Unless there is a total collapse, that is way too harsh a judgment. The team has gone 116-50-19 during the regular season since Keefe took over after Mike Babcock was fired in November of 2019 – and Keefe has the highest winning percentage (.678) of any coach in franchise history. The team’s 54 wins last season and 115 points were also records.

That should give him a longish leash but it is Keefe’s postseason failures for which he could fall prey. The blame, of course, is not his alone; there is not a single organization in the NHL that has gone without winning a playoff series as long as the Maple Leafs’ 17 years.

Unless serious injuries befall its big guns, Toronto has the talent to outscore most opponents and finish first or second in the Atlantic Division once again. Of course, with its sad history that will not mean anything unless it slays the beast that lurks in the playoffs.

Auston Matthews is the league’s best goal-scorer and is just entering his prime. A healthy Mitch Marner should finally reach 100 points. There is no reason to expect William Nylander’s production to decrease. Michael Bunting was a huge surprise last year, and Alexander Kerfoot is likely Toronto’s most underrated forward. He has the occasional hiccup but mostly shines no matter where he is placed in the lineup.

Here is the rub: none of them is a defenceman. Morgan Rielly is an excellent offensive D-man – but the only true scoring threat among the corps of blueliners. Mark Giordano had his day once but is past that; the current holdout, Rasmus Sandin, has shown promise but it would be an awful lot to expect a 22-year-old who has never scored more than 16 points to become immediately reliable.

When it comes to goaltending, Toronto has rolled its bones with Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. The former, a two-time Stanley Cup-winner with the Penguins, had five victories with the Senators last season, the latter won 22 with the Capitals, who chose not to re-sign him.

The two of them will account for more than US$6-million of the club’s payroll. While short term, that is actually more than the Oilers paid Jack Campbell to move west for the next five seasons.

Toronto’s starting netminder the past two years signed a contract worth US$25-million. Campbell, who is older than Murray and Samsonov, made the all-star team for the first time in 2022 and was 48-12-8 in the Maple Leafs’ crease over the past two regular seasons.

Campbell is 30 and has had injury issues, so to sign him long term was a significant risk for Edmonton. On the other hand, Toronto’s hopes lie with Murray reviving his career or Samsonov suddenly becoming a consistent starter. If this were a classic old TV sci-fi series, the robot would issue this warning to the club’s general manager: “Danger, Kyle Dubas!”

The interesting thing about hockey is that, quite often, the unexpected occurs. Teams may excel – but in a different manner than predicted.

It is a long way from now until the beginning of the 2023 playoffs. Chances are this is not the year of the Maple Leafs. Again.