It has been two weeks since the Leafs lost in the first round...again. For the sixth year in a row, the Leafs did not make it past their first opponent, with five of those losses coming in the final possible game of the series. The last time the Leafs won a playoff series was in 2004; in the 18 years since that win against the Ottawa Senators, they have lost in the first round six times, the Qualifying Round once, and missed the playoffs ten times (with one season - 2004-05) canceled due to the lockout.
With Florida advancing past the first round, the Leafs are the only team not to win at least one round in the salary cap era (other than brand new expansion team Seattle). Florida, Toronto, Columbus, and Calgary are the only teams not to make it to at least one Conference Final since 2005 (with Colorado recently leaving that list). It has been a historic run of ineptitude for the Leafs franchise, rivalled only by the days of finishing fourth in the Norris Division in the 1980s - but even that team managed to win a couple of playoff rounds.
Despite my best efforts, I find myself still emotionally tangled up with the success of this team once the playoffs come around, even though I am expecting to be disappointed every year. I have written about many of those disappointments over the years, and so the process of writing this post has become a vital part of my way of processing the ending to each season.
I still hate writing this post every year - and I couldn't even bring myself to write post-mortem blog posts after the last two losses against Columbus (August 2020 in the Qualifying Round) and especially last year against Montreal. But this year, I feel as though I need to process this most recent first round loss by writing about it, so here I am, opening up old wounds in an attempt to reconcile the fresh ones.
I went back and read the last blog post I wrote after the Leafs' season ended after losing a Game 7 against Boston in 2019, and, honestly, it's eerie how much of that post I could have written today. It's actually really disheartening because it seems like so little has changed in the past three years - right down to the fact that, just like in 2019, the Leafs had series leads after Games 1, 3, and 5 only to lose the last two games.
Even if might seem to be more of the same on the surface, this loss feels different, and I think it's worth working through, even if just for my peace of mind. Of course, I realized that the first thing I needed to do was to revisit my "Leafs Levels of Losing" to see where these most recent three losses ranked in the pantheon of pain.
Revising the Levels of Losing
In 2018, after the first Game 7 loss against Boston for this particular group of players, I ranked all of the Leafs' playoff series losses in my 26 years as a fan. There have been three very difficult additions since then, so here's my updated list with the losses from the 2020s ranked and placed into tiers and with commentary included afterward.
Honourable Mention: L.A. Kings, Western Conference Finals, 7 games, 1993. (I was not a Leafs fan yet, but it still kind of counts, if only for the way that the collective pain from this missed opportunity has continued to affect new fans over the past three decades.)
16. Chicago Blackhawks, Western Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 1995.
15. St. Louis Blues, Western Conference Quarterfinals, 6 games, 1996.
14. New Jersey Devils/New York Islanders, Last Day of Regular Season, 2007.
13. Washington Capitals, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 6 games, 2017.
12. Vancouver Canucks, Western Conference Finals, 5 games, 1994.
11. Boston Bruins, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2018.
10. Buffalo Sabres, Eastern Conference Finals, 5 games, 1999.
9. Philadelphia Flyers, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 2003.
8. New Jersey Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 6 games, 2000.
7. Philadelphia Flyers, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 6 games, 2004.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets, Qualifying Round, 5 games (in a 5-game series), 2020.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlantic Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2022.
4. New Jersey Devils, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 7 games, 2001.
3. Carolina Hurricanes, Eastern Conference Finals, 6 games, 2002.
2. Boston Bruins, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 7 games, 2013.
1. Montreal Canadiens, North Division Semifinals, 7 games, 2021.
The loss in 2020 in the Qualifying Round against Columbus sits at the top of Level III for me (#6 overall) for a couple of reasons. The first was that the 2019-2020 season was a mess for the team, seemingly largely due to the toxic situation with coach Mike Babcock, who was replaced by Sheldon Keefe partway through the season. The team was not playing very well overall, and I had mostly written the season off by February.
The second was the fact that the season was suspended due to COVID for several months, and by the time the bubble started in August, it just really felt like hockey did not matter. The loss still stung - after all, technically, the team didn't even make the playoffs because of that loss, but it still seemed early enough in the Leafs' window that it was okay to write off that one season...until it turned into another, and now another.
I thought that nothing could ever supplant "It was 4-1" (ie. losing Game 7 in Boston in 2013), but I have realized that last year's loss to Montreal was actually worse. There was no expectation of the 2013 Leafs to win that series against the Bruins - or even to be good that season. They were almost certainly helped in even making the playoffs by the fact that a lockout shortened the season, but they were still a fun team to watch, and I thoroughly enjoyed most of that series - until the last ten minutes of Game 7, of course.
Ultimately, the pain from that 2013 loss came from the accumulated years of anguish in addition to a historical collapse, and although that still hurts to this day, the Montreal loss was worse - and it will only continue to get even worse until this team finally wins a playoff series. So I think I need to spend a few minutes on that loss to Montreal, because it is ultimately the source of much of the residual angst from this year's loss to the Lightning.
The Leafs had finished first in the North Division in the pandemic-shortened season, and fans were looking ahead to the first meeting of generational superstars Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid in the second round - or they would have been, if the Oilers had not been swept at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets. Then the Leafs went up 3-1 in the series against Montreal, despite losing captain John Tavares early in Game 1, and everything seemed poised for the Leafs to end a 17-year playoff series win drought; then things started to go wrong.
They played poorly in Game 5 at home until the third period, in which they scored two goals late to tie before losing in overtime on a goal by a rookie. Then almost exactly the same story happened in Game 6 in Montreal, and the Leafs were suddenly facing all of the pressure in Game 7, in which they completely collapsed and failed to show up - on home ice against their most storied rivals. It was one of the most embarrassing and shameful moments in a franchise history that is full of them.
The immediate pain of that loss was made slightly more manageable in some ways by the fact that the Canadiens went on to sweep the Jets and beat the heavily-favoured Vegas Golden Knights before succumbing to the Lightning in the Finals; after all, at least the Leafs didn't lose to a "bad team".
But it also made the question of "what if?" that much more potent; after all, if the Habs could make a run like that, it made sense that the Leafs could have made a similar run, right? And for the record, the fact that the Canadiens finished last overall this year after their miracle run only makes that loss worse - especially since many of us suspected that the Canadiens were taking advantage of a unique opportunity throughout the 2021 playoffs because of the different divisions, as many expected the Leafs would or at least could have.
The 2021-22 season
I watched this season with a mix of anticipation and desperation, constantly feeling the tension between what I hoped would happen and what I expected would happen. As a result, I had trouble enjoying this season despite the fact that the Leafs had the most wins (54) and points (115) in franchise history, as well as a 60-goal scorer and possible (likely?) MVP in Auston Matthews, in addition to incredible seasons from Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly. My discomfort was mostly because I knew deep down that none of it would matter unless they won in the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference playoff teams were essentially locked in by January, and it was clear that the Leafs, who were the fourth best team in the overall standings this year, would almost certainly have to play two of the best seven teams in the league just to escape their division. Tampa, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, ended up finishing eighth on a tiebreaker, and Boston ended up in tenth - though the numbers may be somewhat inflated by the poor performance of the bottom four teams in the division this year.
Regardless of what happened in the regular season, though, every Leafs fan knew that nothing would really matter until the first round of the playoffs. To no one's surprise, the impending sense of doom that I felt for most of the season turned out to be justified. The season went on, and it became more clear that the Leafs would most likely be playing Tampa, and I had a bad feeling that I knew would not go away until they could win. There was a lot of talk about how this year would be - or even could be - different, but we all knew what could happen and that our worst fears might come true.
The series against Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay is a great team - maybe even a historically great team. There is a decent chance that they will advance deep into the playoffs not only this year, but for the next several years. Somehow, their window - which started with some players in this group in 2015, is now into its eighth year. In the past seven years, they have won the Cup twice, lost the Finals once, and lost in Game 7 of the Conference Finals twice (in addition to inexplicably missing the playoffs once and being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round once).
Their run of success defies reason - and it happens to coincide with the Leafs' best window in at least two decades (and maybe three, depending on how much you thought the Sundin/Joseph teams of the early aughts actually had a window - which I still believe). There's probably an alternate universe in which young me decided to pick the Lightning as his team for some reason - and that version of me would have seen three Cups already in his lifetime.
This series was a toss-up going in - it was actually equal odds for both teams to win the series - with many prominent hockey minds expecting a seven game series. Most prognosticators were picking the Lightning to win based on the recent history of both teams; after all, the champ is the champ until they're not the champ anymore, and someone has to take that title from them, and the Leafs had not demonstrated the kind of determination required to knock out the champ in recent years.
The worst part of this loss against Tampa Bay is that, unlike the previous five first-round losses, there is no one to blame except for the other team - although the refs can take some blame in Games 6 and 7. I'm not nearly as bitter or given to conspiracy theory as some fans, but it's not too much of a stretch to state that there were a few missed or blown calls in the last two games, and that circumstances favoured Tampa in both games.
The Leafs could have - and arguably should have - won this series. They were the better team in the better part of five of the seven games, and Tampa's goalie was rather ordinary all series. The teams traded fairly dominant wins in the first four games (as they did during the season), so it became a best two-out-of-three, and the Leafs were good enough to win all three of those games.
The Leafs came back from a 2-0 deficit with the first lead change in the series in Game 5 and won on an incredible play by Marner and Matthews to lead the series with a chance to win in Game 6. They led 3-2 going into the third period in Game 6, after again coming back from 2-0 before ultimately losing in overtime (in no small part due to some suspect high-stick calls in the third period leading to a Tampa 5-on-3 power play and the tying goal). And then it just didn't happen in Game 7, which they lost 2-1 in a hard fought game that easily could have gone the other way.
There was nothing wrong with the Leafs in Game 7 or overall in this series (though they did make a couple of costly errors early in Game 6); they just lost to a team that knows how to win. This was not like Boston in 2018 or 2019, when they lost to a clearly superior team, or 2020 or 2021, when they clearly lost a series against an inferior opponent due to their own issues. This was two heavyweights going the distance, and someone had to lose.
This is where the narrative is the real problem. The Leafs are the only team in the three major sports leagues that feature series (ie. the NBA, MLB, and NHL) to lose five consecutive winner-take-all games in the first round. (And yes, I'm aware that the loss in Game 5 to Columbus was technically in the "Qualifying Round", but it still counts.) In any case, the chances of this happening are 1 in about 28,000 - which is to say, in modern sports, essentially zero.
The fact that these Leafs have now lost ten consecutive elimination games - including nine in which they could have won the series and four in which they could have finished the series before a seventh game - only contributes to this overall narrative of failure. But a quick review of the circumstances of the other teams reveals a slightly different story than what the big picture might indicate.
Two of the five teams they lost to (Boston in 2019 and Montreal in 2021) went on to the Finals. Another two of the teams (Washington in 2017 and Boston in 2018) would make the Finals the following year, with the Capitals winning. And even Columbus, which was only a year removed from sweeping the Lightning in the First Round in 2019, lost all four games against Tampa, the eventual champion, by one goal. So, of the past six series losses, two they should have lost two (17 and 18), they should have won two (20 and 21), they maybe could have won one (19), and one could have gone either way (22), and only one of those six teams was not removed from a run to the Finals or the Cup by a year.
Here's another interesting fact: the entire team has changed over since the 2019 loss except for four players: Auston Matthews; Mitch Marner; William Nylander; and Morgan Rielly. So this isn't even the same team from the first half of this streak to the second half. And none of those four players can be blamed for this most recent loss.
The circumstances remind me of a team like the Washington Capitals under Alexander Ovechkin. Starting in 2006-2007, the Capitals did not make it past the second round for a decade: they missed the playoffs once; lost in the first round thrice (all in Game 7); and lost in the second round 6 times (thrice in Game 7). They finally went on a run in 2018 and won the Cup; of course, they have not won a playoff round since, but I think any Caps fan would take one Cup even if it meant never winning another series (as would most Leafs fans, I would imagine).
The Future of the Leafs
I know there are a lot of fans who are calling for wholesale change in the front office, behind the bench, and in players on the ice, but I'm firmly in the camp that believes that would be a bad idea at this point. Although the result was ultimately the same this year, the process to get there was not, and this team is better than it was last year. They have learned and grown and gotten better, and I still believe that they will break through sooner rather than later.
There are a couple of changes that should be made, though. John Tavares should not be the Captain any longer, and the "C" should be given to either Matthews or Rielly, who really are the heart and soul of this team. I don't know if it would make a huge difference, but I don't think it would hurt; it might actually motivate Tavares even more.
You could actually easily convince me that Tavares could be traded for the right package in return (a goalie and a pick, maybe?), but I don't think that's going to happen for the next few years. So here's hoping that he can become more of an impactful player, which is funny to say considering that he is still a point-a-game player with an excellent record on faceoffs and is arguably the best second-line centre in the NHL. (Is it weird that I would not be too disappointed if he was injured for a significant portion of next season and the Leafs could use his salary to beef up other areas of the roster? Nope? Okay then.)
There are a few questions that linger, especially about goaltending - is Campbell worth a big contract? - and defense - are the young D-men ready to step up? - but the track record of Dubas and Shanahan has been spectacular in the regular season, and I have faith that they will make the right decisions. After all, even the decisions that have not paid off - Foligno last season, Ritchie and Mrazek this season - have not been overly detrimental to the team's short-term success; they have had to (or likely will have to) depart with some draft picks to deal those players away, but this team's window is in the next five years, so picks are not a big deal right now.
In a lot of ways, Dubas is playing Moneyball with most of his roster, trying to squeeze the most out of the money he has not committed to the Core Four and Rielly, and trying to find the most value for the least money. I thought he did really well overall this year with signings like Kase and Kampf, but he is going to have to continue to improve the third and fourth lines and hope that a few more players can make the jump to the NHL from the Marlies (especially on the back end).
There's only so much the front office can do, though, and there's only so far they can go if the results in the playoffs don't match the expectations. I think that there's one more chance for the front office and the core of this team before significant changes are made. The history of the league indicates that teams with this level of talent and regular season achievement find a way to break through at some point - but if it doesn't happen next year, there may be a need for some not-insignificant changes.
And this is where I find myself hoping, yet again, that next year things will be different. I've experienced some form of this grief process 29 times, and even though it seems ridiculous and silly and meaningless at times to put this kind of emotional weight on something so superficial, I still hope and believe that next year could be different. So here's the upcoming season and the chance for something special to happen; after all, in Leaf Nation, there's always next year.