TORONTO (Mar. 29) — From my perspective (maybe you share it, maybe you don’t), here’s what the Toronto Maple Leafs have accomplished in the past three games: Edged a lottery team (New Jersey) playing on back–to–back nights; lost to the trade–and–injury depleted 32nd–place club in the National Hockey League (Montreal), then defeated a top seed (Florida) resting its Vezina–caliber goalie. In other words, the absolute bare minimum.
During that five–night epoch — and as is custom for a team with the longest Stanley Cup drought — the Leafs went from heroes… to bums… to heroes. The only grey area pertaining to the club was in the streaks of Brendan Shanahan’s formerly all–black coif. My ol’ pal, Steve Simmons, wrote in the Toronto Sun about the Leafs being Jekyll and Hyde — defeating sound opposition and losing to dregs. The latter part is true; the former, a good excuse for a column. Steve knows as well as anyone that the Leafs of 2021–22 are no different than the other teams in the Shanaplan era: top–end skill; soft in all regions of the ice; average–to–mediocre blue line; suspect goaltending. Hardly a Stanley Cup recipe. Perhaps, again, not even a recipe to survive one playoff round. Veteran Mark Giordano, 38, is being billed by the Leafs’ pom–pom waver at Sportsnet as the reason for “hope”… with his 23 games of playoff experience since 2007. Just as Ilya Lyubushkin was labeled “the difference maker” on defense when acquired from Arizona (the Leafs are a middling 9–7–0 since his arrival and he’s contributed one assist; Bobby Orr… not). The Maple Leafs remain — in my view and until proven otherwise — a passive, one–line–scoring team with not nearly enough quality in goal and on the blue line to make significant noise in the post season.
Auston Matthews got pissed off and cuffed Rasmus Dahlin across the neck with his stick a couple of weeks ago. The local media considered it an epiphany; the long–overdue act of aggression that would transform the National Hockey League’s top goal scorer into a snarling menace come playoff time. Wanna bet? It says here the Maple Leafs can be neutralized once more in the Stanley Cup tournament so long as the opposition hammers and tongs on Matthews and Mitch Marner. When assailed physically, the two biggest guns tend to wither. No need to worry about William Nylander. Montreal proved as much last spring by allowing him to roam free. Willie had a good series and still the Leafs spit up a 3–1 lead. For all the talk about how the club should have finished off the Canadiens, the M & M boys combined for one goal in seven games (scored by No. 34). And, trust me, the Blue and White won’t be drawing such a dismal (if suddenly hot) team as Montreal in the opening round this year.
Most likely either Tampa Bay or Boston will be a mega–challenge — the former trying to become the first team since the 1982–83 New York Islanders to win three consecutive NHL titles; the latter having repeatedly proven its playoff capacity to counterbalance Matthews and Marner (an nice way of saying “pester them to distraction”).
How does one oppose the argument — made here and elsewhere — that the Leafs are a team exquisitely built for the regular season (except for the rare instances when opponents choose to be “playoff” tough)? Or, debate the contention that Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have been inordinately stubborn in their approach to modifying the team for Stanley Cup toil? What is substantially different about this year’s Toronto club that would provide legitimate expectation for a deep playoff run? It can’t be Mark Giordano, nearing 40. God forbid the college kid, Abruzzese, has a good first game. The kooks in the media will be arranging a spot for him along Legends Row, as they did poor Erik Källgren after 30 minutes. If anything, the Leafs are less–equipped than in prior years owing to the flux and uncertainty in goal. Tampa Bay has the best and most–accomplished netminder in the NHL (Andrei Vasilevsiy). Boston has a freshman (Jeremy Swayman) performing wonders with a 19–8–3 record; 2.09 goals–against average and .925 save–percentage. The Leafs have Petr Mrazek*, Källgren and a person that could offer some playoff hope (Jack Campbell) if he rebounds from a prodigious second–half slump and a month of inactivity. From the perspective of goaltending — forever the most–critical element to playoff success — which team would you rather be: Tampa Bay, Boston or Toronto? It’s a somewhat silly and rhetorical question.
* Mrazek appeared to re–injure his groin in the first period tonight in Boston. Left the game.
So, call me a Negative Nancy or a Leafs “hater”. There are enough Leaf “lovers” in the mainstream media that one naysayer — more than a decade removed from covering the team, full time — should hardly be a nuisance.
As for being proven inaccurate? Well, that’s another matter.