What’s happening now?
The Maple Leafs lost. Once again. Another Game 7. Her sixth straight playoff loss of the current era and tenth straight missed opportunity to knock out her opponent.
The deepest roster the franchise has ever frozen, blessed with home field advantage, couldn’t make it against the team that’s played more hockey than anyone in the past two years. Once again.
Not for lack of trying, of course. The Maple Leafs pushed the back-to-back Stanley Cup winners to the abyss, unleashing attacking pressure in all three periods and finally losing a terribly recalled goal to send tonight’s game into overtime.
But the Leafs are not in the hypothetical business. You are in winning business. And once again they have nothing to show for it.
“We’re tired of feeling like this,” Mitch Marner said after the game, fighting back tears as he looked back on a season of ups and downs.
“The feeling is the same. The result is the same,” said Morgan Rielly, a veteran who has experienced more of those playoff disappointments than any other Leaf.
It shouldn’t have ended like this. Not with mid-season roster reinforcements like Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell assimilating so seamlessly. Not when Jack Campbell goes toe-to-toe with a multiple Vezina winner for most of the series. Not with the raucous crowd of Scotiabank Arena heaving them onto their home ice, propelled by a city just beginning to cautiously fall in love again with the team it had spurned countless times before.
Ice hockey isn’t fair. And tonight proved it – handing an unworthy end to a worthy team that now leaves the future in utter uncertainty.
So the question remains: what happens now?
After another loss, the knee-jerk reaction is to roll heads. Most will likely want to start with a member of the core team of players who haven’t managed to get over the hump in more than half a decade. Maybe instead they’ll focus on the coach who led them to three straight losses this season. Some may raise their scalpels even higher, calling for a complete gutting of the management group that has served as architects all along.
The passion is understandable. But it’s misguided.
How can you not repatriate this Leafs team?
Despite year after year and loss after loss, this current (and now former) iteration of the Toronto Maple Leafs came painfully close to something special.
The stars showed up when it mattered. Auston Matthews became the first NHLer to score 60 goals since Steve Stamkos, who celebrated the night across the rink, did so a decade ago and finished the streak with nine points in seven games. Marner flirted with 100 points in the regular season while continuing to show off his defensive and penalty-killing prowess. William Nylander set career highs in goals and points. Campbell evolved into a quality starter. John Tavares maintained a points-per-game pace throughout the season and into the playoffs. Michael Bunting went from obscurity to top-line Calder candidate with a sweetheart deal. Even Pierre Engvall had a coming-out party, resurrecting his status within the Leafs organization and pushing his way to the top of the team’s RFA priority list.
The list goes on and on.
There are even reasons to be optimistic about next season.
The Maple Leafs will likely have a fully healthy Rasmus Sandin back for more significant minutes alongside Timothy Liljegren, who has taken a quantum leap in development this season and appears poised to become an NHL-level impact defenseman book. Bunting and David Kampf are signed to return with a combined cap hit of $2.45 million. Engvall and Kase are RFAs unlikely to cost a king’s ransom to re-sign. The entire top 4 of the Blueline is set to return.
Those are good things.
But there are also decisions to be made. Hardness.
Despite the organization’s repeated messages that they believe in Justin Holl, the 30-year-old’s cap hit and waning game this season makes him a likely candidate for a summer move, potentially making room for a Liljegren or Sandin to slide to the top -four.
Giordano and Blackwell played so well after the trade deadline that each gave the roster exactly what they needed in their respective roles. But as veteran unrestricted free agents, it remains to be seen if the Maple Leafs can afford to keep them. Giordano will be 39 when the puck drops in 2022-23. Will he still be the same player?
Jason Spezza will also be 39 on opening day and is coming off his lowest scoring season since 2003, viewing the first two games of the series as a healthy scratch from the press box. Whether Spezza will sign again is irrelevant. The real question is whether he is considering the Leafs’ plans for the future as his age-related decline begins to take hold as the Leafs’ prospects for roster spots push.
If Spezza returned, would he hold back a deserving young player?
And then there’s Petr Mrazek, forgotten in all this mess, who will remain on Toronto’s books for the next two years with an annual price tag of $3.8 million that management would surely prefer to put into a new deal for Campbell would.
There’s a very real possibility that Mrazek will report as a Maple Leaf at training camp when it opens in September while Campbell finds employment elsewhere. And while that wouldn’t be quite the disaster that losing another Game 7 on home ice would be, it would be close.
The easiest way for the Leafs to answer all of these questions would have been to keep winning, pushing uncomfortable decisions further into the future and softening their blows with a Stanley Cup save.
Of course that didn’t happen. Now the Maple Leafs must face them head-on, with Sheldon telling Keefe that he and Kyle Dubas will meet on Sunday to unpack the season and plan for the year ahead.
The talks that will take place in the coming months will be uncomfortable and grueling. As they should be, especially after a result like this.
But one thing is for sure: Shanahan, Dubas, Keefe, etc. should have them. At least another year.