TORONTO – We get it.
The playoffs are underway right here in Toronto, and the Maple Leafs are not part of them.
It feels like the neighbourhood throwing a giant party in your own backyard — with smoked brisket wafting from the barbecue and G-funk classics bumping through the Bluetooth — and not bothering to knock on your door and hand you a paper plate and a beer koozie.
For this core, it’s yet another smack in the face after three years of smacks in the face.
The natural thing to do when you’ve been hurt is to examine the wound. And the post-season flaws of this Leafs group, whose own dressing room will be squatted in all month by better teams, have been laid bare for the prodding.
Not enough defensive depth. Slow starts. Just three even-strength goals. An ineffective third line. Can’t lock down a 3-0 lead. Cap-crunching contracts. A bright operating-room light has been shone on all the ugly bits over the past 48 hours.
So, while we’re not here to make excuses for a flawed team, we do think it’s worthwhile to consider some of the silver linings in the wake of the 2019-20 Maple Leafs’ elimination at the hands of the hardest-fought qualification-round series.
Matthews, series MVP
“Your best players must be your best players,” goes the playoff cliché.
Auston Matthews was a consistent force every game, all 200 feet. Not only did the top-line centre lead the Leafs in goals (two), points (six) and even-strength points (four), he scored the winner in both victories and averaged a whopping 25 minutes of ice time.
A defensive stud, Matthews was the only plus player on the roster.
He tied Zach Hyman for the team lead in hits (10). He topped everyone in takeaways (10) and offensive-zone faceoff percentage (57.1%). He even rated second, to Alexander Kerfoot, among Leafs forwards in blocked shots (eight), despite not being used on the penalty kill.
Halfway through the series, a former NHLer texted me just to marvel at the step Matthews’ game has taken and how impressed he was that the 22-year-old was using his big frame to influence the game.
“His commitment defensively has really just been off the charts,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “How competitive he’s been, his tracking coming back to our end, blocking shots and getting into lanes, just doing a lot of little things that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet or anything like that.
“He’s not doing it for recognition or anything; he’s doing it because it’s what’s required to win.”
Robertson is a real player
Trivia question: Who was the last Maple Leaf to score a 5-on-5 goal?
Nick Robertson, 18 years old, 5-foot-9, 164 pounds.
Toronto has another good one coming, and he should only get bigger, stronger and more confident. There was some concern he’d be able to get shots off against such a suffocating opponent, yet Robertson — certainly unafraid to snap it — fired seven shots in four games despite seeing 12:05 a night in ice time.
Absolutely, it’s a shame Robertson’s first NHL goal came in an empty building and in a dramatic, series-swinging loss and sucked some joy out of a kid’s moment, but the second-rounder’s rapid emergence is a blessing for both the team’s top nine and Kyle Dubas’s cap picture.
Valuable experience for Keefe
In those hollow minutes after shaking hands with his own former coach and the better one in this series, Keefe admitted there were decisions he’d like to do over. Unlike the core players, who probably don’t need any more lessons in what losing an elimination game feels like, this was fresh for Keefe.
Let’s see how he channels the disappointment into his first full run as a head coach in 2020-21.
John Tortorella missed the playoffs twice, then got thumped in the second round before he went on to lead the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup. What mid-season replacement Craig Berube accomplished in 2019 was an anomaly.
Rielly left his heart on the ice
After what must’ve been the most physically and mentally taxing season of his hockey life — a year fraught with injury, underwhelming production, and a posterization by Connor McDavid — Morgan Rielly showed up and skated his heart out.
Yes, he had some turnovers, but he looked like the Rielly of 2018-19: skating, driving play, giving it his all. Rielly averaged a team-high and career-high 28:22 per game. His give-a-crap rating is sky high.
With Tyson Barrie leaving town, expect Rielly to be back on his rightful spot atop PP1 next season. The task falls on Dubas to find the type of partner that frees Rielly to play to his strengths.
Toronto has tradeable players
Changes are coming. To not alter the roster would be requesting more pain.
The good news is that by front-loading so many of the forward deals, Dubas has made those contracts easier to move. Especially in a climate where team owners will care more about saving actual dollars than cap-hit dollars.
The contracts of Kasperi Kapanen, Alexander Kerfoot, Andreas Johnsson, and (gasp) William Nylander all carry less real salary than their cap hits suggest.
How deep those trades cut will be of great interest, but it’s almost impossible to see one of them not getting dealt to address Toronto’s dangerously thin blue line.
With Barrie and Cody Ceci coming off the books, there is a little space for creativity in a reload, and Dubas’s executive team has proven creative if not always correct.
You can’t pin this one on Andersen
Frederik Andersen may have been the second-best goalie in an elimination series once again, and the Liam Foudy shot should’ve been stopped, but it takes a great stretch of the imagination to blame him for the loss.
A .936 save percentage, 1.84 goals-against average, plus a shutout should be good enough to win a five-game set. Three even-strength goals is simply not enough run support.
Those calling for an immediate change in net must not have seen Matt Murray’s recent work or realize how much Robin Lehner will command on the open market. One more season of Andersen at $5 million is fair value.
“I can’t believe the stress Freddie is under at the start of every game. He has to be lights-out at the start of every game because of the way they play, because they are, in my opinion, a slower-starting team, because they like to open it up and they’re more interested in getting the offence going early,” Kevin Bieksa, a 13-year NHLer, said Tuesday on Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac. “I can’t ever remember giving up that many Grade-A chances at the start of the game.
“That’s the way the Leafs team plays, so I don’t know how much you can really fault a goalie for that. That’s a coaching philosophy and an organizational philosophy.”
In 2019, a sharper Maple Leafs performance 4-on-5 could well have ousted the Bruins in the first round; Boston’s vaunted power play simply feasted on the scrambly Leafs.
With the understanding that Columbus’s power play does not have a Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand nor a David Pastrnak, Toronto shut them out completely.
The Blue Jackets not only went 0-for-14 with the man-advantage, they also went minus-1, with Ceci scoring shorthanded for the Leafs.
A performance to build upon for the weaker half of Toronto’s special teams.
The other guys get paid, too
For every bad word you utter about the Maple Leafs, try saying something nice about the Blue Jackets.
This league runs on parity, and you can bet the Lightning are in for a challenge.
To think it’s a crazy upset that a team with an identical standings points percentage, superior defence, a sturdier identity, better goaltending and more man-games lost to injury was able to come out on top in an airtight series is to not see the bigger picture.
Against a worthy foe, Toronto’s inexperienced defence took a step and fared OK under the pressure of losing its conscience, Jake Muzzin. The Leafs only surrendered 2.4 goals against per game, and Toronto is constructed to score three a night, minimum.
The Leafs also outshot the Jackets by six pucks per game.
Think of where Justin Holl was a year ago at this time. Not every Leaf underachieved.
As a whole, we still see this ouster as a step backward for the franchise. But it ain’t all bad. A closer inspection sees that strides were made. The glass might not be half full, but it’s not empty either.