Monday, April 29, 2019

Yet another Leafs' postmortem

It has been almost a week since the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7...again. Of course, this time, they did not blow a lead in the third period of the deciding game; they blew three one-game leads in the series. It's a different kind of disappointment, but disappointment nevertheless.

Of course, I shouldn't be disappointed in the conclusion of the Maple Leafs' season this year; after all, it ended precisely how I thought it would both in my pre-season and pre-playoff predictions: losing Game 7 in Boston in the first round. But even though the ending was ultimately predictable, the path there was anything but, and it's worth taking a brief look at what happened in yet another postmortem of a Leafs' season that ended without a Stanley Cup or even a Finals appearance (52 years and counting, though only 26 for me as a fan).

Unlike last year, when the Leafs took a lead into the third period and I still knew they were going to lose, this team was behind in Game 7 from the start and they looked out of it aside from a dominant stretch in the second period. But they just didn't have it that night, and the end of this series was a synecdoche of the entire season.

Thoughts on the Leafs' season


I found it hard to invest in this team from the start even though I knew they would likely be one of the best five or six teams in the league and a Cup contender; after all, NHL '19 had picked them to win the Cup in its simulation of the season. But they seemed disengaged for much of the season, and with good reason. Two of the top three teams - Tampa and Boston - were in the Atlantic Division with the Leafs, and so there was an air of inevitability about the end of the season, since it would need to go through both of those teams - or so we all assumed.

The Leafs were essentially locked into a first round match up with Boston by December, and a stretch in which the Bruins were on fire sealed home ice advantage for Boston, so the Leafs had little to play for and slid down the standings at the end of the season to finish third in their division - though that was still good enough to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference and seventh in the NHL.

There were some highlights, certainly: new high profile free agent signing John Tavares integrated well; Mitch Marner became one of the most electric passers in the league; and Morgan Rielly emerged as a defensive and offensive powerhouse who looks poised to become a perennial Norris Trophy contender over the next several years. And goalie Frederik Andersen looked unbeatable at times.

But all of that good was wasted with yet another early exit after a series in which the Leafs were the stronger team for three of the seven games and about a third each of two other games. But what made it particularly bittersweet was that they blew a series lead after Tampa - by far the favourite to win - got swept out of the first round. There was a path for the Leafs to make a run, but they missed their chance.

While I admit that the Bruins did play well for much of the series, this was almost as much about the young Leafs not knowing how to win as it was the veteran Bruins winning. As had happened all season, the Leafs could not put together a full consistent effort - in this case throughout the series - and they needed to be more consistent in order to win It did not help, of course, that Boston was probably the worst match-up for the Leafs, but at the end of the day, there cannot be excuses; Boston was the better team for the times that counted, and the Leafs are now wondering what might have been.

NHL Divisional playoffs


Indulge me in a brief aside about the NHL's current playoff structure, which in true NHL fashion is almost entirely convoluted and inscrutable. The league returned several years ago to a divisional playoff format in which teams are ranked in their divisions and play the first two rounds in division. Unless, of course, one division has a team in fifth place that has more points than the fourth-place team in the other division, in which case that team crosses over to attempt to win a division they have never played in. 

Or, even more confusingly, there might be a situation in which the two fourth-place teams both cross over in order to ensure a better match-up for the division winner who ended the season with more points. This is also not acknowledging the fact that the inconsistency caused through awarding an extra point for a loss in overtime means that some games are worth three points instead of two, which it could be argued completely invalidates the whole idea of seeding based on points. My point here: the NHL's current playoff method is a mess, and the rumours are the players are going to advocate for it to change (back?) during the next round of negotiations leading up to the new agreement for 2020.

Under the previous method of seeding in each conference, with the division winners taking the top seeds in order of points before the rest of the teams are ranked by points, the West, interestingly enough, would have featured the same match-ups if seeded by conference, and using the previous method of reseeding after the first round - matching up the highest and lowest seeds to advance, rather than advancing through the traditional fixed bracket - would have ended up with the same match-ups in the second round.

But the East would have looked a bit different. Toronto would have ended in fifth, which would have meant that they would have played at the New York Islanders, and Boston would have hosted Pittsburgh. Let's just pause for a second on that thought: the much-anticipated John Tavares revenge series between the Islanders and Leafs could have happened in the first round in the first year after Tavares abandoned the only team he had known for his hometown team. And the Leafs would have perhaps had home-ice advantage had they had something to play for in the last two weeks of the season.

Now, there's nothing saying that the Leafs would have finished stronger in the regular season, or that they would have defeated the Islanders, but I wish we could have found out. And while it is true that this current playoff format, which was instituted to incentivize rivalries, has really disadvantaged Toronto, I think that the criticisms of the format, which are too myriad to list here, go beyond my own fandom and across the league, and I do hope that they change the format again sooner rather than later. In the meantime, of course, the Leafs' road to success will go through Boston and Tampa in some way or another, so they will have to find a way to win in the current circumstances.

Changes for next year's Leafs


I honestly had not considered this edition of the Leafs to be a championship calibre team all year, and I still didn't, even when I thought they might sneak through and win a round or two. My best hope for the season was a second-round loss to Tampa; when the Bolts lost unexpectedly, my hopes were cautiously upgraded to a deep playoff run that would give the younger players some real experience for a future run to the Cup.

But there were still too many flaws in this team this year to really ever fully think that they could win. Even with the mid-season trade for Jake Muzzin, they we're still weak on defense, and Gardiner's gaffe to cause the second Bruins goal (which turned out to be the game-winning goal) in Game 7 may turn out to be his final error as part of the Leafs' defense. I think that this series also showed that the Leafs also need a strong second-pairing defenseman to shore up their blue line in addition to Gardiner, so they may be in the market for two decent D-men when one may be difficult to find - a concern to be sure.

There are definitely a few changes to be made on the forward front. Nazem Kadri's egregious cross-checking penalty at the end of Game 2 cost him the rest of the series, and I would argue necessitates his immediate departure from the team. Patrick Marleau was ineffective for most of the series, and it would be great to get his contract off the books. And for what it's worth, I think the Leafs could look at trading William Nylander for the right return; I think he would be fine to stay and that he will shake off the rust from this year, but he might be a good asset to get a strong defenseman in return.

That said, a lot of the building blocks are in place. Tavares will only get better with time and Matthews and Marner (who will sign for big bucks soon) will keep improving. Andersen is good enough to win games for the team (as demonstrated in Game 5), and most of the pieces are in place, so despite this year's final result, I do feel really good about this team.

And as for the growing refrain to fire coach Mike Babcock, I think that is overly reactionary and unhelpful. He did make some puzzling decisions in Game 7 regarding ice time and not switching up lines, but it's not time to cut him loose yet. Sure, he hasn't won a playoff series in four seasons as coach in three playoff appearances, but he was not expected to win any of those series by most of the pundits - even this year. The Leafs bottomed out to worst in his first year, then hit the playoffs a year ahead of schedule before last year's letdown in the third period of Game 7 and this year's painful loss. But the heat will be - and should be - on Babcock for next year for sure, so expect him to be more motivated to find a way to help the team win.

Conclusion


It's easy to see the same result - a first round loss - and to conclude that the Leafs did not make any progress this year, but that's just not true. They learned and grew and they will be even better next year. This year's loss is more about considering what could have been, and how this team might have become something special with even one more round of play. There was briefly a window of hope of something more, but everyone needs to remember how collectively young this Leafs team is and that they do have time remaining.

There is a lot of talk about windows and how the Leafs' is closing with their upcoming cap pressures. But even in the Salary Cap Era, windows for annual contenders still last for five to ten years. The Leafs are still in the early stages of their window opening. Furthermore, as the 2016-17 Penguins and 2018 Capitals and perhaps this year's Sharks and Bruins will attest, there is often that one magical Cup run at the end of a team's window that happens after years of heartbreaking losses, so it's possible that the Leafs' window might be even a bit longer than we think.

Sure, there are many recent examples of teams whose windows unceremoniously slam shut, but many of those teams unexpectedly made a deep playoff run and forced themselves into contention when they had no business doing so. The 2017 Ottawa Senators are the most recent example of such a team, and they mistakenly chose to try to build on that success rather than realizing that it was a one-shot deal, leaving themselves in the unenviable position of the franchise with the worst future in the league.

That is not the case for the Leafs; this team is built for the long haul, which is why Tavares signed with them last July. But their window overlaps with the two other dominant teams in their division, which does not include the rebuilding teams like Florida and Buffalo that may yet emerge as future contenders.

It's not as if the Leafs don't have more chances to make a run, because they do; it's the fact that they were not able to take advantage of an unexpected window this year, and that this year may represented a great chance for the team to get a sense of what a long playoff run feels like, which could have proven very valuable to any future runs.

This team is too good not to have a run or two or three at some point, and the consensus around the League and its writers is that this Leafs team will end the Finals and even the Cup drought at some point in the near future. But it was not to be this year, and even though it's exactly what was expected, we're still left wondering what might have been.

And despite the early loss and my season-long reticence to really invest emotionally in this team, I still find myself more interested and invested after this abbreviated run. I really like a lot of these players, and I want to see them figure it out and find a way to win. I have a feeling that I will be more invested next year from the start, and I look forward to watching these Leafs grow up and grow more into the team that they will become, which has been shaped in part by yet another disappointing loss this year. I just hope there are not too many more disappointments in store before they can figure it out.

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