TORONTO (Apr. 24) — Well, if anything, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the cleanest lockers in the National Hockey League. How could there be a speck of dust anywhere after partaking in the post–elimination exercise for 51 consecutive years? Tomorrow (Thursday) will mark clean–out No. 52, dating to Apr. 7, 1968 at Maple Leaf Gardens. And we wonder — interminably — when might the journey end?
As you’d imagine, there is lots of anger and disenchantment toward the Blue and White today, after Tuesday night’s Game 7 playoff defeat in Boston. The Internet doesn’t provide a filter (or spell–check). Emotion is raw on all Maple Leafs–related websites… and from those in the mainstream Toronto media that expected more than another first–round dismissal. When the acrimony abates, however, there will come recognition that the hockey club is still on a fairly straight path, and gusting with potential. That didn’t change with the 5–1 loss at TD Garden. Unlike ownership in the past (Harold Ballard, Steve Stavro, the bottom–line Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan), the current regime at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — led by Brendan Shanahan — is genuinely trying to cultivate a Stanley Cup contender. Money has been allocated for components, on and off the ice, as copiously and honestly as in any rival NHL locale. Only the recipe is lacking… and a search for ingredients astray will therefore consume yet another Maple Leafs summer.
Despite the catchy headline on the front of today’s Toronto Sun (top–left), there is no curse. There is no hex. The Leafs have not fallen victim to any form of alchemy. The club simply wasn’t good enough to overcome a divisional opponent that placed slightly ahead in the regular season. More specifically, not well–enough equipped to close out the Bruins at home in Game 6 after a masterful road performance two nights prior.
Why the Leafs haven’t played for the Stanley Cup since 1967 — advancing to the Cup semifinals on only five occasions (1978–93–94–99–2002) — is more of a mystery, given the comparative ease in which arcane expansion teams (Florida in 1995; Carolina in 2002) have done so; that one club has managed the feat after a crummy regular season (Minnesota in 1991: 27–39–14) or has come out of nowhere in the span of eight months to play for the big prize (Edmonton 2006). Leafs fans will gaze longingly at Columbus this spring after the outrageous sweep of Tampa Bay in the opening round. Forgetting, perhaps, that the Blue Jackets went for broke at the trade deadline (adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa; Adam McQuaid from the New York Rangers) and possess, right now, the hottest goalie on the planet (Sergei Bobrovsky).
So, there is always a reason for coming up short… and for overachieving.
When looking at the big picture, the Leafs weren’t quite right through the entire season. Not after a blazing and deceptive first couple of weeks, anyway. The club would catch fire for a time; threaten to approach its lofty pre–season outlook and then do something silly… often at home, where it careened to 16 regulation losses. Momentum was rarely sustained and there never existed a moment when you thought “okay, this team is now what we figured it would be.” Why that didn’t happen will be an enduring question for the Toronto hierarchy this summer. Squeezed to the upper–limit of the salary cap, management not only has tough decisions ahead, but it needs to make correct decisions — the latter more difficult than the former.
Were I in command of the Maple Leafs, these would be issues under utmost consideration:
• This will not be a popular sentiment today, and it may not happen. But, I would continue with Mike Babcock behind the bench. Though his deployment of forwards prompted much curiosity as Game 7 evolved Tuesday night, it’s my position that the imbalance on the Maple Leafs between skill and tenacity is beyond the purview of a coach. General manager Kyle Dubas may feel differently and could have the authority to make a change this summer. Until, however, he assembles the appropriate blend of personnel, Babcock won’t make an appreciable difference. His finest hour, to this point, as coach of the Leafs was Game 5 at the TD Garden, when his club out–“Bruin’d” the Bruins. Why the team didn’t come close to such a performance in the final two matches cannot be easily explained, though the quality of opponent was undoubtedly a factor. But, again, I suspect the problem with the Leafs is on the ice, not behind the bench.
• Somehow, some way, Dubas has to break his imprudent vow to William Nylander and unload the anchor–contract agreed to by both parties on Dec. 1. Transferring that arrangement, with its five–year commitment and $6,962,366 cap–hit, seems like a pipe–dream after Nylander loitered on the periphery throughout the season and playoffs. But, the Swedish forward, about to turn 23, is abundantly skilled and may find a home elsewhere. With the right trading partner (if there is one), Dubas could procure some backbone to balance the roster. And, really, how better for the Maple Leafs to ease their crushing cap dilemma before next October? If, conversely, Dubas is more concerned about the public pledge he made to retain Nylander, he won’t likely become a veteran GM. This is a move Kyle absolutely must explore. Beginning today.
• I’ll say it now and I’ll stand by it: the Maple Leafs will not win the Stanley Cup with Frederik Andersen between the pipes. Given his size and reflexes, he stands alongside any Toronto goalie of the post–1967 era. But, he’s not clutch. There’s no real indication the Leafs can count on Andersen when the spotlight burns brightest. His sudden regression in Games 7 against Boston the past two years is enough evidence for me. Others may contend differently and I don’t anticipate the club will spend a moment in the off–season considering such a change. But, neither, I’m convinced, will it reach the NHL summit by standing pat.
• Knowing how the Leafs operate, this won’t happen either. But, I wouldn’t wait another week before naming Morgan Rielly captain of the hockey club. Not only is Rielly the most–polished spokesperson for the team, he’s become its best all–round player. No one performed with more clarity and determination against the Bruins. It appears the Leafs are holding open the captaincy until Auston Matthews is ready to assume the role. But, why? He’s a marvelous, skilled performer yet hardly a commanding presence off the ice. My eyes glaze over every time he spews cliches in front of cameras and microphones. John Tavares, I assume, would just as well carry on without the burden of wearing the ‘C’. For Rielly, there would be no burden. He has grown so naturally into the role the past few years and would represent the club with absolute distinction.
In my view, there’s no other choice.
• Hang onto Nazem Kadri. His contract is a blessing; he is talented… and the club’s only warrior. Find at least one more player up front with a grizzly comportment and maybe — just maybe — Naz won’t feel so crimped and frustrated when matching up against an opponent like Boston. To trade him because of his playoff unruliness the past two years would be a mistake. Neither should the Leafs underestimate the importance of his Muslim heritage. It makes Kadri unique in more ways than one.
There are other issues, to be sure, and we’ll tackle them in the coming days and weeks.
But, these are the most–pressing — short and long–term — for the Blue and White.