For the Maple Leafs, it’s all the same

TORONTO (Mar. 8) — Nothing has changed in the past half–decade. Zilch. Bupkis. Nor will it change in the foreseeable future. Every year on trade deadline day, the Maple Leafs are choked off and handcuffed by the four playoff ballerinas who gobble up more than half the salary cap. That Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares are still seeking their first appearance, together, in the Eastern Conference final is a travesty unlike any other (and among many) in the modern era of Toronto professional sport. If a comparative putz like me has understood this since at least 2021, you know the tall thinkers at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment comprehend it as well. Nonetheless, the poorest administration and management of any team in the city has guaranteed that the current era will be remembered as the biggest waste of puck skill in franchise history.

You saw it, once more, with your own eyes. While properly run teams were able to make bold and strategic additions prior to the National Hockey League trade cutoff earlier today — Colorado, Florida and Vegas appearing much improved — the Leafs again went shopping at Dollarama. Not because Brad Treliving chose such a path; he’s long–been known as a general manager that works tirelessly. But, Treliving had virtually nothing to work with. Which was entirely predictable. Any fan of the Leafs has to shudder at this quote, today, from the Toronto GM: “I really believe in our group. Now that belief, we’ve got to turn it into getting the job done.” Oy! How many more times are we going to hear the same, hollow assurance about “the group” that simply cannot prevail when it matters? Haven’t you grown tired of the false promises? Of watching the Core–4 disappear and get throttled by Division rival Boston — in the regular season and playoffs? Did you notice Matthews in the two beatdowns by the Bruins this week? I couldn’t be certain he was dressed. Auston is a scoring machine against metaphorical weaklings in the NHL. When encountering such a structured, physical opponent as Boston and Florida, he withers.

Other than a lazy, amateurish giveaway that led to a breakaway goal at TD Garden, did you happen to detect anything affirmative about Nylander? I didn’t. Tavares has about one–third the requisite fuel at this time of year. He’s 33 and slowing considerably. Marner, the club’s most–gifted player, did show up against the Bruins this week, but has fallen in line with his overpaid teammates in Stanley Cup toil. Does anyone honestly believe the eighth attempt with this Leaf nucleus to challenge for the NHL title will turn out differently than the other seven?

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Apart from the law of averages, and that none of us are genuinely clairvoyant, what is it about the Leafs that provides trust and expectation? Yes, the club can score and it can certainly entertain. Which is admirable during the six–month playoff tune–up. But, the Leafs cannot adequately defend against composed and aggressive rivals.

Remarkably, goaltending is still a crapshoot.

In the post–expansion era (after 1967), no person following the Maple Leafs had to guess which stopper would play on a night when Mike Palmateer, Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour wore the Toronto jersey. Since Belfour, in 2004, it’s been pretty much a coin flip. Including today, with the wildly unpredictable Ilya Samsonov and the overhyped (yet often poised) rookie, Joseph Woll. Which of these two will start Game 1 of the playoffs? There isn’t a Toronto hockey fan on the planet that can assuredly predict such an outcome. The Maple Leafs have been blindly throwing darts at the goalie position throughout the Core–4 era. With predictable results.

The blue line has been an utter wasteland with the Leafs for as long as most of us can remember. Not since 1973 — in season or during the summer — has a Toronto GM obtained or developed a Norris Trophy threat. That requires a bit of ingenuity and, today, a lot of cap space. Neither of which the Leafs possess. So, every spring, Toronto enters the Stanley Cup crusade at a sizable disadvantage against legitimate contenders. Why, during the salary cap era (since 2005), hasn’t this factor been addressed? The answer is easy. Brendan Shanahan and his manager of the day keep throwing gobs of salary and cap space at demonstrated playoff losers. Largely because it requires a minimal amount of effort and gumption. And, partly because almost nothing is demanded or expected of the team by its hapless followers. Think about it. The Leafs last played in the Conference final in 2002. A recollection reserved, today, for people 30 years of age and older. What point of playoff reference can a teenaged Toronto hockey fan possess? Or, a 20–something who remembers the absurd and appalling ten–year absence from the Cup tournament during a full, 82–game schedule that began with the advent of the salary cap? No wonder the city went nuts when Tavares scored in overtime to rinse Tampa Bay last spring.

For more than a generation of Maple Leaf zealots, that was their Stanley Cup.

The playoff bar around here remains close to street level. How can it possibly change when the team’s most–skilled performers go AWOL under the spring spotlight? Not once… not twice… not even four or five times. But, during seven consecutive attempts with the same nucleus. Forget the colloquial definition of “insanity”. Toronto management laid waste to that ages ago. Now, it is nothing but blind and baseless hope. Nor a circumstance that can be remotely altered by such bargain basement acquisitions as Ilya Lyubushkin, Joel Edmundson (who I admire) and depth forward Connor Dewar. These are pick–ups from the NHL remainder bin. Necessitated, every year, by obscene contracts awarded the club’s regular season superstars. Where’s the mystery anymore? Where has it been, in particular, since the Maple Leafs choked against Montreal in the 2021 playoffs?

Despite individual accomplishment between October and April, this remains one of the most–stagnant and puzzling epochs in franchise history. And, everyone knows it. Including the myopic perpetrators.

Even if they tell you differently. Over and over. With a straight face.


23 comments on “For the Maple Leafs, it’s all the same

  1. I had my Sens fan wife read your column and my earlier comment about changing my allegiance from Leafs to Sens. She started laughing when she got to the Leafs shopping again at Dollarama.

  2. The Toronto Maple Leafs need to change their name to the Toronto Maple Links or the Maple Loafs!

  3. In the 2025/26 season without Tavares
    Matthews $13.5
    Marner $13
    Nylander $11.5

    That will be $38 out of a $90 million cap or approximately 42% of the cap. Add in Reilly and it’s still 50% on just 4 players.

    Not a great formula for success especially when you have 7 years of evidence to prove that they are not physically strong enough to endure one round let alone 4.

    Also last year round 1 win was a fluke. They were outplayed in round 1 and flat out embarrassed in round 2.

  4. The only thing I disagree with is the Leafs can certainly entertain. Maybe some of the time but for the most part their games are pretty dull. Like the last Leaf Sens game where the only excitement was Morgan’s crosscheck. Vegas won a Cup in six years because the management knew what they were doing. Vegas still has six picks in the first three rounds over the next three years. Leafs have won nothing and only have three picks so things are clearly only going to get worse. As a life long Leafs fan now I just laugh. I’ve lived in Ottawa all my life and I’m thinking it may finally be time to retire my Leaf jersey collection and to be truthful I already have a Sens jersey.

  5. I have to disagree with your conclusion that nothing will be different this spring. Your reasoning is sound except for your assertion that “none of us are clairvoyant”. I had a dream about the Leafs 2024 Cup run. Marner, Matthews and Rielly – all out with injuries. Edmundson becomes their leading scorer. He gets a hat trick in Game 7 of the finals. All three goals bounce in off his ass. They erect a bronze statue of his glutes at Bay and University.

  6. Hey i agree 100% what you said in this article.I dont understand why they keep beating the same old drum over and over but with same results.The management cant be that stupid is it.Its quite obvious its the core 4 because they change it around every year bringing in different players but same results every year.The core 4 is the problem core 5 if you included Rielly.He is not a top defencemen at best he is #2 definetly not #1 but is paid as a number#1.Matthews is,highest paid player marner nylander taveras are in top 10 for aav thats unbelievable.No team in history of this game has almost 50% cap spend on 5 players its so funny everytime i think of it .Vegas florida colorado rangers canes all top teama,in west and east might have 2 fowards making high aav but the rest is spend on defence and goalie.Until the management can see that then im sorry to say leaf fans it be another wasted era

    1. Because they can friggin’ get way with it. Our wimpy media kisses their asses and asks easy questions The building is always full!

  7. Though Ron Francis, Owen Nolan, Ryan O’Reilly, Marcus Foligno, Calle Johannson, Doug Gilmour-2.0, Phil Housley, Brian Leech, Eric Gustavfson, Wendel Clark-2.0 etc etc etc…where no more effective in ending the Leaf cup drought post trade deadline (a drought which, as we all know, can be blamed on bad refs, bad luck and on Jesus himself…because he HATES our team) your point is well taken Howard. In light of ALL this and in light of the decade-long same approach and Because we are talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs the only thing that fits is that, mark my words, those ulcer inducing MF’ers are gonna shock the sh** out of everybody and do something in this post season nobody is predicting or expecting. I’m not saying this because I’m a zealot (gave that up long ago after I did the math NOBODY ever does, the decreasing odds of beating out 31 (and soon to be 96) other teams every season ). I’m only saying it because…LEAFS.

  8. Lots of despair in Leafland but what could we expect? This year’s version took a step back from last year’s and did we think a few deadline moves would turn them into a juggernaut for the cup? No way! The stars are overpaid, a couple of them are almost useless, Tavares and Rielly. Defensively horrific. The coaching is highly questionable as defensive hockey does not exist with this team. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not close to being a cup contender. They gave up six more draft picks this deadline and in the next three years are down ten picks. That’s half their picks. Treliving had to make these little moves to make the team stronger defensively. Too many goals against and a weak penalty kill. Goaltending is questionable. So, good luck, and away you go. That Charlie Coyle goal in the Boston game says it all. Nylander is in trouble at the blue line and has no help. Liljegren and Tavares are his closest mates and don’t give him a good option. Lili holds the line and when Coyle knocks the pick off Nylander, he’s gone and cannot be caught. No preventative measures taken though everybody could see it coming. Now that’s bad coaching. Holding the offensive blue line with nothing going and giving up a breakaway needlessly. Just have Lily back up to centre to guard against a turnover.

    1. Leafs will have to seriously consider this summer weather to buy out the last year of Tavares’ contract. $11million for one more year or two years at $3.67 million. He’s clueless defensively and offensively dry. Also, a new coach, please. Keefe’s time is up. Then let’s see some kids. You can’t build a team through free agency. They tried it this year and failed miserably. I guess they should have kept their draft picks this deadline and just went with what they had. Bow out and move forward. This season is a write off.

        1. Next year will be another write off then, as we wait patiently for Tavares’ contract to finish. What a mistake it was to sign him. And I was all for it at the time. Should have kept Kadri instead. Howard, what do you think is Tavares’ problem? Is it him or is it the way the team handles him? He and Nylander have always been oil and water, don’t play well together. Yet they keep putting them together. I think Tavares needs to be a winger the rest of the season and playoffs. He’s too much a defensive liability at centre. Kampf and Dewar as the third and fourth line centres. Domi at number two. Tavares at left wing?

      1. I totally agree. The needle will not move in a more positive direction until Tavares`s contract is gone. I say eat it next year and get at least two top 4 defenseman.

    2. Nylander I was hoping some other team would grab that contract. But the other teams know he’s useless. He’s a floater watch him looking at puck most of time. To give that man that kind of money. Yells you right there upper management has to go also. Sorry but just saying.

    3. Nylander had options, there were 2 players open to pass the puck too but he chose to dipsy-doodle around with it. Yes Waldo, they were options, this is the NHL & Nylander has the ability to make either pass Then he was checked by Frederic, not Coyle, who then went down & scored. Dumb play by
      Nylander, Woll gave up a DQ softie.

  9. Hi Howard, well you certainly hit the nail on the head! I couldn’t agree with you more. I say in far less words much the same to friends of mine but just get told I am picking on the Leafs or that I am not a true fan. Personally I thought they should have removed Shanahan. I was never a big Dufuss fan but everything he ever did had to be approved by his boss. Always a pleasure reading what you have to say, not because I agree but because you are right! Cheers, Dave. No need to say it but please continue!

  10. I do not disagree with anything you are saying, but do have one question for you. Seeing Pelley taking over now, with the two years left on Shanahan’s contract, do you think Pelley will fire him or simply not renew his contract when done? Second, who would he bring in to replace Shanny, or who would have the call on that? Under that assumption, who would the GM be at that time and who would make that call?

    It is hard to believe that the last legitimate time we, as Leafs fans anything to concretely cheer on, was 31 years ago. One goal away from the finals!

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