The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ Stanley Cup playoff drought will continue for at least another year.
For those of you not keeping track, it is now 54 years and counting since the Leafs have conquered the National Hockey League.
Is this team hexed or cursed? Will they ever win a playoff series again?
I’m being facetious, of course, but there’s a case to be made that Toronto’s North Division semifinal series loss against their arch-rivals from Montreal is the team’s biggest post-season flop in recent memory.
And yes, that includes the Game 7 collapse in Boston in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs in which Toronto squandered a 4-1 lead midway through the third period of the deciding game and lost 5-4 in overtime.
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Toronto enjoyed a virtual wire-to-wire first place finish in the North this season and they had two players in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner finish in the top five in the NHL points race in 2021.
The Leafs scored the most goals in the division this season and allowed the fewest pucks into their net, while Matthews claimed his first Rocket Richard Trophy by scoring a remarkable 41 goals in 52 games.
Add all of that to a rather dominating start to their series against the Canadiens, one in which they had a 3-1 series lead and were on the cusp of advancing to round two for the first time since 2004, and you can see why Monday night’s loss in Game 7 was an epic playoff collapse.
Clearly, the Maple Leafs simply can’t win the big game when the chips are down. How else can you describe it?
Once again, the team’s faithful are asking now what?
Toronto has some talented players, a good coach in Sheldon Keefe, and a winning formula – at least in the regular season – but the team’s brass will use the coming weeks to consider their options to improve the club’s fortunes.
First and foremost, will team president Brendan Shanahan retain general manager Kyle Dubas?
The 35-year-old Dubas has just completed his third full season as GM and his legacy in Toronto thus far is tied to the mega contracts his gave to Matthews and linemate Mitch Marner, which total more than $22 million a season, as well as signing William Nylander to a $6.9 million contract, and the free agent signing of captain John Tavares ($11 million).
Dubas has gotten a solid return on his investment when it comes to their performance in the regular season, but aside from Nylander’s five goal outburst in this year’s playoffs, Toronto’s fab four has not delivered the goods when it matters most.
Dubas should be given credit for pulling new starting goalie Jack Campbell off the scrap heap as well as improving the team’s defence corps by signing free agent veterans T.J Brodie and Zach Bogosian, but acquiring the likes of Joe Thornton, Nick Foligno and Wayne Simmonds – while they brought a truck load of experience to the dressing room – left a lot to be desired on the ice.
Many fans are again calling for change, and with Marner coming off another lackluster playoff performance in which he looked like a boy among men, No. 16 is the prime target of the most disgruntled supporters.
The fact is, Dubas is not going to get the same value back in a trade for an $11 million player with four years left on his contract who finished fourth in league scoring this season and is 24 years old.
Some might say ‘so what’ and point to the need of a culture change in the team’s dressing room, but what guarantee is there that Marner’s replacement is going to be the right fit? There is none.
As much as I and every other Leafs fan out there wants to see major change, I don’t envision any of the ‘big four’ being shipped out of town.
Where the change will be realized will be on the periphery, namely through the team’s glut of pending unrestricted free agents who are going to be looking for new contracts this summer.
I think it’s a safe bet that goalie Frederik Andersen has played his last game with the Leafs, and the same is probably true for the soon-to-be 42-year-old Thornton.
Winger Zach Hyman is worthy of a new and more lucrative contract that his expiring $2.25 million deal, I would sign Bogosian to another one-year contract, and veteran Jason Spezza — Toronto’s best playoff performer this season behind only Campbell and Nylander — deserves to return to the blue and white.
The others, including Foligno, Simmonds, Riley Nash and Alex Galchenyuk, may or may not be back.
So while there will be some gloomy days ahead and a lot of hand-wringing and second guessing over the summer, my best guess is we will see a very similar Leafs outfit when the puck drops on the 2021-22 NHL season this fall.
Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.
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