TORONTO (Aug. 10) — It was eight days of stuff that we surely missed during the pandemic shutdown.
And, really, nothing more.
If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, feel the disappointment, yet again, and allow it to fade. You didn’t need this best–of–five reality show against Columbus to demonstrate the frailty of your team. It was liberally on display for 5½ months before COVID–19 stopped the regular schedule in its tracks.
As to why the apparently high–octane attack of the Maple Leafs fizzled so completely against the Blue Jackets, I refer you to words spoken in this corner, just more than a month ago, by George Armstrong, who captained the team to four Stanley Cup titles in the 1960’s: “I look at this Toronto club and see a lot of skill, but not enough maturity. I don’t see the team as wanting to win badly enough and making the physical sacrifices on the ice. The players seem satisfied with trying to score goals, which is the fun part of the game. But, the top guys don’t yet have the burning desire to win a championship. Maybe that will come.”
And, maybe it won’t.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are young and phenomenally gifted. John Tavares is not young and has clearly lost a step over the past year. But, his hands are still golden. Morgan Rielly is entering the biological prime of his career. Frederik Andersen has been a dependable regular–season goalie… but, without a resume beyond the first week of April. Otherwise, there’s an enormous, salary cap–induced gorge between the stars of the team and the average, interchangeable workers. If the big boys are having a tough time — as they did for all but a miraculous four minutes of the Columbus series — there’s no one to pick up the slack. Neither is there a physical nor irritating presence on the hockey club; the Brad Marchand, Tom Wilson type that can rattle the opposition. When you get down to it, this is a fairly easy bunch to encounter. And, to subdue. But, again, the past eight nights were not a revelation. The Maple Leafs are, today, what they were between early October and mid–March — just not good enough.
As to how general manager Kyle Dubas improves the team with nearly 50 percent of a flat salary cap committed to Tavares, Marner, Matthews and Nylander… well, it’s anyone’s guess and will rank among the biggest challenges in modern franchise history. Though Tavares is a good captain and a wonderful person, his intractable $11 million of cap space for five more years will be an anvil on the shoulder of whichever person runs the hockey club. That contract, so celebrated in July of 2018, will evolve into one of the biggest hiccups of the cap era. Nylander’s pact (four more years at close to $7 million) is the most movable and he scored regularly during the past season. But, a rival GM will not be receiving much on the dollar for playoff value. Not yet, anyway. Matthews isn’t going anywhere… until he can make his own decision four summers from now. Which isn’t particularly far down the road given that No. 34 has already been a Leaf for that amount of time. And, Marner, with all his talent and flair, has also failed to craft any post–season distinction.
As I’ve written many times, this stand–alone playoff tournament should not be a true measure of accomplishment, or lack thereof, for management. Neither, again, should the 2020 Stanley Cup have been the one to end Toronto’s 53–year championship drought. If ever it occurs, the National Hockey League’s most resilient fans will want the mug to be raised in an arena filled to capacity, and with the prospect of a crowded victory parade. Neither will occur in this pandemic summer. Followers of the Blue and White should therefore cast aside their latest blow with relative ease. And, with the disgruntling knowledge that nothing about the team came to light in the past week. Most assuredly, we knew it all beforehand.