TORONTO (May 30) — Perhaps never in the modern history of the Maple Leafs is so much thought to be riding on the outcome of one game: the decisive match, Monday night, in the Toronto–Montreal opening playoff round.
I say “thought to” because it’s difficult to comprehend a truly significant fallout if the Leafs cough up their 3–1 series lead and bow out for a fifth consecutive year before the second round. Sure, the white noise that is so prevalent heading into Game 7 conveys some form of detonation — if kooky fans have their way, Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe will all be fired and the roster core “blown up” — but rationale suggests otherwise.
Before continuing, allow me to interject with the obvious flip side: the Leafs finally getting a big game from Auston Matthews, thereby eliminating the Habs and maybe proving, against Winnipeg, that the first–round obstacle is the toughest. For many teams, winning a playoff series is a hurdle. For the Maple Leafs, it’s Mount Everest. Given that people have reached the summit in Katmandu — and have also died trying — anything is possible on Monday.
If, however, the Maple Leafs lose; blow the two–game series lead against a weak opponent and drop a deciding encounter for the fifth time since 2017, what can we legitimately expect before next season? Shanahan, the club’s president for the past eight years, isn’t likely going anywhere… unless there’s a limit to the torture he can withstand while running the hockey club. Still, that would mean quitting on the final four years of the six–year extension he signed in 2019. Which is highly improbable. Would Shanahan, after another playoff calamity, jettison the manager he hand–picked only three summers ago? Choosing the inexperienced Kyle Dubas — fresh off a Calder Cup triumph with the Toronto Marlies — over Hall–of–Fame incumbent Lou Lamoriello. And, after evidently concurring, in lock–step, with a plan to build the Maple Leafs around the $40 million nucleus of Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Firing Dubas would amount to a rather grand admission of failure on Shanahan’s part. And, to whom could he then turn as a replacement with genuine confidence from the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment? No, from my perspective, it would be too soon to give up on Dubas. If the still–young GM is replaced, it’s likely he’ll be accompanied by the man that selected him for the role in 2018.
Since stepping in for Mike Babcock just more than 1½ years ago, Sheldon Keefe has amassed a record of 62–29–12 in 103 regular season games. Is it reasonable to think the Maple Leafs would throw in the towel on a young head coach with a .660 win–percentage? Even if he loses in the post–season for a second consecutive year? Keefe was in charge when Matthews scored 41 goals in 52 games to win the Rocket Richard Trophy. Did the coach suddenly go stupid once the playoffs begun, thereby coercing Matthews into a dry spell?
If Shanahan and Dubas are back, Keefe will almost–certainly return with them.
Which brings us to the forty–million–dollar men. The Leafs cannot do anything with Tavares, after agreeing to a no–movement clause with an $11 million cap–hit that stretches another four seasons. Though Marner possesses as much innate skill as all but three or four players in the National Hockey League, it would be nearly impossible for the Maple Leafs to trade the remaining four years of his contract, which calls for a cap–hit of $10,903,000. Not after contributing only five goals and 25 points (to date) over half–a–decade of playoff underachievement (by comparison, Doug Gilmour had 35 points for Toronto in one spring — 1993). There’s no way the Leafs will give up on Matthews, even if he spins his wheels one more time against Montreal. He’s the face of the hockey club and arguably the most–gifted shooter in franchise history. That thinking could change sometime in the next three years, as Matthews heads toward unrestricted free agency after the 2023–24 season. But, not this summer. No chance.
It guarantees that the Leafs return in the fall with Tavares, Marner and Matthews chewing up $33,543,250 of a flat, $81.5 million salary ceiling. William Nylander, as always, remains the most tradable component of the Toronto nucleus, with three years left at a cap–hit of $6,962,366. Yet, Nylander has finally shown some life in the playoffs this spring and Dubas has all–but vowed to jump off a building before he unloads the 25–year–old forward.
How then should anyone expect the Maple Leafs to “blow up” the roster? Contrarily, Shanahan and Dubas — in the salary cap world — made an ironclad commitment to the four players around which the club is composed. The Leafs, until mid–decade, will have little choice but to continue adjusting the team on the periphery.
As such, the only feasible alternative for MLSE would be managerial Armageddon — Rogers, Bell and Larry Tanenbaum going postal; cutting ties with all of Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe… and starting from scratch. Yet again. Given, however, that any person managing and/or coaching the club will be fastened to Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander through 2025, such a drastic move would be little more than expensive window dressing. And, not at all appealing to ownership after more than a full season of empty chairs at Scotiabank Arena.
So, my advice to Leaf supporters rubbing their palms over some form of nuclear winter if the club bows out on Monday? Stick to the routine. Bitch, moan, scream, commiserate on social media and vow to never again watch or support the club. Then, get un–pissed off and know that you’ll be hot–to–trot, once again, in October.
The mystery of Tuesday and beyond is no mystery at all.
WE END WITH LEVITY…
Howard. Everything in your article is exactly why such drastic measures should be taken, at any cost. Doing the same thing over and over is what? The Leafs brains trust seems oblivious to the fact that playoff hockey is drastically different from regular season hockey. Dubas has always been in way over his head.
No way the Leafs can significantly change the roster. Doesn’t matter who the GM is.
I don’t want them to change the roster. I want them to change the coach and GM, both of whom are in WAY over their heads. Dubas cannot win with just skill. Name a prospect, other than Liljigren, who is bigger than 5’ 11”. The coach was badly outcoached this series. He seems incapable or unwilling to make in-game adjustments.
A new GM might actually put some thought into who he selects for his supporting cast. Simmonds? Thornton? Vesey? Nash? I know Foligno was playing hurt but he cost far more than Hall, and the two islanders pickups. That is not good managing. I know it is all hindsight.
How many GM’s and coaches since Punch Imlach in 1967? And, how many Stanley Cups? Too easy.
I can’t argue that point. That being said I know I am moving on. Hockey needs to move forward but it is stuck in the past. As long as you have “tough” guys like they have on their expert panels, the game will continue to be stuck in the mud. What Reaves did last night made me sick to my stomach. Go Jays, Go. thanks for posting and replying to my comments.
As painful as it is to acknowledge, it’s unlikely that Toronto will make it past round 2, EVEN IF they win tonight.
TSN is aptly reporting that ‘MacKinnon is imposing his will on Golden Knights’. 12 points in 5 games is mind-boggling. Colorado ought to commission a bronze statue as it seems inevitable.
Something tells me we’ve been here before.
Unfortunately we can’t bring back Carl Brewer.
We could trade Matthews like we did McDonald.
Gilmour, Sundin, Clark, nothing seems to work.
I agree with Bob, Howard. I enjoy your articles, look forward to your insights and mostly agree with your opinions.
How do you get young, financially secure, (over?) confident, protected/coddled athletes to engage at the appropriate level for the playoffs?
Is there a Nathan Mackinnon switch on the back of Mathews, Marner or Nylander?
Mathews seems to be a bit more willing to be physically engaged but Marner APPEARS absolutely terrified of getting near an opponent.
Collectively, I’m not sure if they are unwilling to pay the price for success or if they figure they already achieved it.
Nothing wrong with Nylander in this series.
Dubas overpaid for potential and not playoff production with his core, who all had agents who squeezed them to the Max, which is their job, but crippled them to fill out the roster. This is completely on Matthews and Marner. Campbell has more than done his share to easily dispose of the Habs in 5 or 6 games. Hard to believe the Habs made it to a Game #7 with basically 4 defenceman logging almost all the minutes.
Howard, you should write more. You’re insightful, you know the team so well from your years on the beat and you know the game. Enjoyed you on the radio and glad to read your posts. Thanks.
I hope that you are wrong about Toronto not replacing Keefe if/when we are sent golfing tomorrow. Keefe often looks uncomfortable, even distressed during post season media availability. How is it possible that has he and his coaching staff failed to make significant adjustments to the PP? They need a new look. Also, I would suggest that they need to mix in some stretch passes to try and find a way to improve zone entries into Montreal’s end. And for Heaven’s sake just take more shots instead of endlessly passing the puck around the perimeter.
Love your opinions and views. Stopped listening to The Fan. You’re my guy. Thanks for still being there.
With a flat cap it seems pretty hopeless unless the Leafs can trade for a pile of LTIR contracts and thereby acquire enough cap space to make meaningful additions.
I personally have no problem with the core but if you compare them to Boston for example the quality is there but the Leafs cap it is double. Hence the rest of the Boston lineup is stronger because there is enough cap space to add quality players.
Pointing to Keefe’s record which includes this (artificial) season should have an asterisk beside it. I don’t think he is at fault (except for the poor PP ) but did feel the need to mention that. Dubas on the other hand is 100% is at fault for the cap problems. Assuming he survives the summer he has to find a solution.