by Darren Clarke, May 15, 2022
“I’m sitting here… and I’m legit just sad.”
Toronto Maple Leafs fan Justin Drummond, 2:20 AM chat window message
Another year, another Game Seven, first round, loss for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Another post-game journey into doubt for Leaf fans.
Last year the first round exit came against an extraordinarily weak Montreal Canadiens team. The year before the Buds lost against a mediocre Columbus Blue Jackets team (a five game series in whacky Pandemic playoffs). In the two seasons prior to that the Leafs lost to an excellent Boston Bruins team. In 2016-17 a young team with little to no expectations was bounced by the Washington Capitals in the first round.
But it was different this year right? They weren’t playing a weak or mediocre team like the past two years, this fully realized version of the Toronto Maple Leafs was playing the team that won the past two Stanley Cups- The Tampa Bay Lightning.
So, the idotic NHL playoff setup that had the second and third place teams in the East playing in the first round lets the Leafs off the hook right? The fact the Leafs went seven games with the Champs and only lost by one goal allows us to avoid the kind of frustrated soul searching that marked the past two seasons, right? We can all just be legit sad and mourn the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, riggggggghhhhhhttttttt?
Make no mistake this was the best Leafs team many of us have seen, perhaps ever. With 115 points in the regular season the team dominated opponents throughout the year. The Leafs attack included a power play for the ages and otherworldly play in all situations from the likes of 60-goal scorer Auston Matthews and his partner in sublime, Mitch Marner. The third line was a juggernaut. The defense was solid and buoyed by the mid-season acquisition of Ilya Lyubushkin and the deadline trade for Mark Giordano. And despite a lengthy spell of goaltending gone bad, Jack Campbell was healthy and right for the playoffs. Kyle Dubas had his best season as a GM, Sheldon Keefe his most impressive year behind the bench.
All these wonderful things are true. But this series versus a great Lightning team had some less flattering true things. Things like, while the Leafs were entirely dominant in Game One bottling up the Lightning at 5-on-5, surgically dismantling Tampa on the power play, swarming them on the penalty kill, refusing to allow the talented Bolts lineup a heartbeat to setup- it didn’t remain that way. Tampa adjusted. By the last two games of the series the Leafs only had glimpses of that kind of dominance. Tampa made nice little tweaks to getting out of their own end, deflating the Leafs forechecking/pinching pressure style. The Tampa Bay power play looked comfortable and their penalty kill became stifling.
It’s fair to wonder about a coach who has been notably outmaneuvered the past few years appearing to be once again the second best coach in a series.
And there’s the issue of Nick Paul. As in, how did the Lightning manage to add a player like Nick Paul ahead of a team like the Leafs who really could have used exactly that kind of guy? Paul was excellent all series even before scoring two goals in Game Seven. He played big minutes, often against the Leafs best forwards, being a positive contributor all over the ice both in a 5-on-5 and a penalty killing role. While our third line increasingly faded, while players like Alex Kerfoot faltered, Paul continued to get better and more impactful. And somehow the Lightning identified his potential and paid a reasonable price for it, the Leafs didn’t.
It’s fair to wonder about a GM who, despite making excellent regular season additions this year, didn’t find enough ingredients to support a fully blossomed forward core.
There’s more of course. John Tavares is paid 11-million dollars. He’s not returning that value. At all. And it’s not going to get better.
The point though is there are people who want you to believe this first round loss to a great Tampa Bay team via the asinine NHL playoff setup is entirely excusable. There are those who would have you believe all they need to do next year is reboot the same everything and hope for a lucky bounce. Those people are wrong.
This Leafs team started dominant and ended okay. They failed to take advantage of Andrei Vasilievskiy being far less than his best self for the first six games of the series, giving him a chance to be his usual insanely good Game Seven self. They failed to take advantage of the Lightning effectively losing their best player Brayden Point in the first period of Game Seven.
Sadness won’t be enough to get them where they need to be in the future. Sadness is good enough for Justin Drummond, me and you. It isn’t good enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.