First Round and Bust: “So, where are we?”

by Darren Clarke, June 1, 2021

“It’s a game of inches.”

Auston Matthews post-Game 7 loss (and about a billion other people over the course of time)

Auston Matthews go to post-game-media-scrum answer for inexplicable playoff losses this year was, “It’s a game of inches.” If that makes you feel better.

As much as that new phrase entering Matthews greatest interview hits lineup (alongside his other favourite, “Like I said…”) was a nice change, it was also void of meaning. First, everything in America is a game of inches, it would be a game of centimetres here. When in Rome Auston… But more than anything you don’t lose in the first round over and over simply because of fate. You are not helpless against the mysterious forces of fate anymore than you are helpless against an opponent.

This year presented the Toronto Maple Leafs with the chance of a lifetime. A path to the final four without an established elite team in their way. The North Division was a collection of deeply flawed teams to begin with but the bottoming out of Vancouver and Calgary to join Ottawa in the nether regions of the North Division made the divisions ineptitude even more pronounced. In addition the Montreal Canadiens were almost as bad as the worst of the division and seemingly only made the playoffs because a fourth team had to make the playoffs. In the end they were the worst team in the NHL playoffs.

That’s who the Leafs were lined up against- The worst team in the NHL playoffs.

The Habs though presented one unique twist on being bad. They have a goalie who always manages to find his best self at the best time. That was always the danger. That Jason Bourne aspect of Carey Price that means no matter how much it appears he has forgotten he is an elite, trained, assassin, that once he is in danger, in the playoffs, he will, awoken on a park bench by Swiss policeman, react from some deep subconscious place and lay everyone to waste.

And Carey Price was exactly that- he moved around the crease like a well lubricated, intensely calibrated, cyborg, cooly swallowing up pucks without providing rebounds, nimbly flicking out his glove to thwart pucks heading top shelf and generally getting any and all body parts in the way of potential goals. He’s that guy.

But like, “It’s a game of inches…” is a bogus reason for years of disappointment, Carey Price, goaltending God, is also a bit bogus as well. There is always more to it. Yes his play resonated beyond the net to elevate his teammates. Yes, the Canadiens were opportunistic and played with great determination. In the end though the Habs were a team with Tyler Toffoli on its’ first line. You should not lose to a team with Tyler Toffoli on its’ first line. The loss then is more about what Toronto didn’t do than what the Canadiens did do.

What’s more puzzling is that if you were to say to a Leafs fan prior to the series happening- “Jack Campbell, TJ Brodie and William (Bill) Nylander will all play fantastic, the series will go seven games though.” They would be gobsmacked. The fact the Leafs would lose that Game 7 decisively is another matter entirely.

So if the major concerns for the Leafs- Goaltending, the supposedly enigmatic Bill Nylander and the defence, didn’t end up being concerns- What happened? What didn’t they do what they should have?

Lots of reasons.

Let’s break it down-

Poor Planning Leaves You at the Mercy of Bad Luck– The Leafs were actually unlucky. The Game One injury to John Tavares, a completely random, completely horrifying, event took a chunk out a team not built to withstand injuries to their top players. Why aren’t they built to withstand that kind of injury? Because, from a percentage-to-cap standpoint they overpaid for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner relative precedents like Toews and Kane at the same point in their career. You only have a finite amount of hard cap, giving significant chunks away in overpays (and I haven’t even mentioned Tavares’s bloated contract) precludes you from certain things. Not having things matters in ways that are hard to appreciate, leaving you in the post mortem of another disappointing loss grasping for reasons, grasping at magical drivers for losses. More problematic that the things the Leafs didn’t have though might be what the thing they did have- Alex Kerfoot.

Small Game Players– Let me tell you a hockey law here first- You can’t count on a guy who tapes his stick like a candy cane. You can’t. And if you didn’t know that before the last two years Alex Kerfoot should have proven it to you by now. He might give you a single decent game in a playoff series but no more than that. He’s the ultimate symbol of the Leafs management struggle to appreciate what works against non-playoff competition versus what works versus elite competition. That difference is everything.

Similarly, Zach Hyman struggled again this year in the playoffs. Hyman made hay all season long in the soft North Division riding shot gun with Matthews and Marner winning puck battles and digging for goals in the blue paint. All season long, Leafs Nation, blind to the low level of competition, worried about how big of a contract Hyman might require next year. But come playoff time, once again, when everybody else raised their compete level, Hyman seemed to struggle to do what he is supposed to be elite at- win puck battles and be a presence in front of the net. And you know what? Maybe, like playoff years past, Hyman was again struggling with the residual impacts of injuries. It doesn’t matter though in terms of the end result. He wasn’t good enough, again.

Here’s to the New Boss Same as the Old Boss– Remember when Mike Babcock was reviled for his stubborn attachment to not ever playing Matthews and Marner together? Two years later and we now have a coach stubbornly attached to not playing them apart. Sheldon Keefe, seemingly overwhelmed by the moment, dramatically struggled in Game Seven versus Columbus. This year Keefe went all in to the bitter end with Marner and Matthews playing half of the game every night and being increasingly ineffective as the series progressed. I’m not here to argue that Babcock should still be coach, he shouldn’t be (see his treatment of Jason Spezza for starters) but it’s hard not to notice the similarity in stubborn attachment to player alignment that wasn’t working not to mention his failure to get the power play to click (also a criticism of Babcock) when it mattered most.

Jumbo Sized Mirages– The acquisitions of Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds were seen as signs of change. They were rarely more than a mirage. Best-before dates long passed, their supposed dressing room impact was undercut by their fundamental inability to contribute at all in meaningful hockey games. In the end you can either lace ’em up and do positive things or you can’t. They couldn’t.

Morgan Rielly Isn’t a Number One Defenceman– He just isn’t.

The Regression of Mitch Marner- I saved this one for last because it’s the one that puzzles me most. When did Mitch Marner get so average? But again, like the season versus the playoffs overall, the signs have been there for awhile, disguised by the thin competition this year. His lack of patience on the puck, his reckless, low-percentage passes, his lack of feel in tense moments. When and why did he become this guy and why didn’t the coaching staff make adjustments with him? I really don’t know. But at almost 11-million dollars a season he is clearly wildly underperforming in big games.

So, where are we? What is this Leafs team and where are they headed? Some point to the Washington model suggesting the Leafs might mirror their long, lost in the desert, journey before finding a Stanley Cup- “It will happen.” But San Jose went through the same excursion and never found water. That can happen too.

Here’s the good news. Kyle Dubas did good things the past couple years- TJ Brodie was excellent in the playoffs, Jack Campbell as well. William Nylander has blossomed into a big game player- creative, quick, dangerous with sublime passing skills. There is some real, actual, good news here. Dubas has also attached the team to some noble undertakings in terms of diverse front office hirings and embracing things like Black Lives Matter. That means something to me, it should mean something to you. As a GM Dubas has also shown a willingness to try and evolve and adapt his understandings beyond the limitations of his natural inclination- analytics.

It’s worth noting here that the same night the Leafs lost in the first round (again) the New York Islanders, a team left for dead by Leafs fans after we signed John Tavares, a team we mocked for signing our cast offs like Leo Komorov and Matt Martin, they were winning. The Islanders are also a team run by the aging GM, Lou Lamoriello, we let go to place Dubas fully in charge of the Leafs. Not only have the Isles performed pretty much as well as the Leafs in the regular season the past years, they have also had far more playoff success, including their overtime win versus the Bruins in the second game of their round two matchup last night. Just after the Leafs had bowed out to the worst team in the playoffs in the first round.

Hurts doesn’t it?

Still, I am okay with Kyle Dubas continuing as GM. He seems like a good guy, a smart guy, who will continue to try and grow his understanding of the game. We sold out to his learning curve years ago, we might as well keep going at this point.

After all, we’re just a matter of inches away.