TORONTO — A game of inches.
That’s what the Toronto Maple Leafs fundamentally believe they lost here, and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong. But here’s the problem with that line of thinking in the emotional moments following a five-game series defeat at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets: This is exactly what a loss to Columbus was always going to look like.
Every team hits posts and every Blue Jackets opponent is free to roam the least-dangerous areas of the offensive zone. John Tortorella’s crew isn’t designed to accumulate more expected goals than a high-octane opponent, but it is built to beat one.
In fact, the only real surprise about this best-of-five qualifying series with Toronto is that it went the distance. Factoring in the fairy-tale 1-in-140,000 comeback we saw Friday night, the Blue Jackets were only thoroughly beaten in Game 2 — and that’s not nearly enough of an edge for the Leafs to justify doubling down on the cap space they’ve committed to all of their high-end talent again next year.
The world has changed and the plan must change.
There’s obvious danger in making too much of a qualifying series loss after a four-plus-month break brought on by a pandemic, but I’d argue it’s even more risky to watch what just happened and do nothing.
That was far too formulaic and predictable for the Blue Jackets, and the challenges brought on by a COVID-stagnated salary cap are going to force the Leafs front office to make really hard decisions next year if not now.
So, why not now?
Full disclosure, I’ve believed in and defended the logic behind most key discussions with the construction of this team. The Shanaplan essentially called for the Leafs to accumulate and retain as much offensive talent as possible while shifting towards a style of play where they prized controlling the puck above all else, and on paper that made perfect sense to me.
But it’s come at an obvious cost. The defence is second rate, and took a major blow against Columbus when Jake Muzzin was stretchered out of the series late in Game 2. Plus Toronto simply didn’t get adequate bang for its buck, with Sheldon Keefe forced to unite John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for the majority of Sunday’s 3-0 series-clinching loss because the coach couldn’t trust his depth to come through if he spread the talent across multiple units.
“Well we’ve obviously found it difficult through this series to generate offence and get chances. I thought that our best opportunity to do so would be to have those guys playing together,” said Keefe.
They ruthlessly dominated the run of play but couldn’t break through. Tavares hit a post while staring at an empty net guarded only by towering defenceman Seth Jones on Sunday and had a couple other Grade A’s turned back by Joonas Korpisalo.
However, in the minutes where the Leafs didn’t have those guys on the ice together, they generated almost nothing. They were basically no different than any one-line team struggling in a tight series — except that line accounted for about 40 per cent of the maximum they’re allowed to spend under the salary cap.
That’s not a problem anyone should assume will magically go away.
The Leafs were kept off the scoresheet entirely in Games 1 and 5 of this series. Matthews was a beast from start to finish, Tavares had some big moments, Marner exhibited more effort than execution and William Nylander… well, let’s just say he didn’t deliver on his goal to dominate.
“That’s a good team that doesn’t give you much and they stay absolutely fully committed into what they are as a group,” said Keefe. “The difference in Games 1 and 5 obviously are three what I would call somewhat lucky goals and we didn’t get quite the same level of luck around the net. Columbus defended extremely well and didn’t give us a great deal, but we had enough chances to score more goals than we did with the two shutouts that we had.
“More luck and it might have been a different result, but I think I’m not sure where it’s going to finish up with. Did we end up shooting at about two per cent at 5-on-5? For a team like ours to score on two per cent of its chances, I think everybody coming into the series would say it’s pretty unlikely.
“That’s the way that it went.”
In fairness to Keefe, he was speaking while the Game 5 loss was still raw and he’d just seen his uber-talented team shoot 1.97 per cent at 5-on-5 in the series after clicking at 8.57 per cent in the regular season.
There’s a lot to unpack there and he might choose to call it something other than bad luck after closer examination.
The same goes for management.
Kyle Dubas is under more pressure than any member of the organization after a season where his own decisions failed to bear fruit. The Nazem Kadri-for-Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot trade was a complete flop and the decision not to bring in a capable backup goaltender behind Frederik Andersen before February doomed the Leafs to this play-in round series with Columbus because of all the points lost in Michael Hutchinson games.
It’s hard to imagine him watching what’s just happened against the Blue Jackets and running back the exact same core of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Andersen and Morgan Rielly.
It says here that at least one of those players will be sacrificed as part of wider changes before the start of next season and — spoiler alert — there’s no chance it’s Matthews.
Everything else must be up for consideration, pending the forces at play in the marketplace.
And after a campaign where the Leafs fell short of expectations at basically every turn, now comes the real game of inches.
They own 12.5 per cent odds of claiming the No. 1 pick in Monday’s draft lottery. Should that happen, the path forward is crystal clear: Draft Alexis Lafreniere, trade away a high-impact (and high-priced) winger and use the cap savings to make improvements on the blue line.
That’s an enticing possibility and a very real one.
But it’s not the game plan the Leafs should have walked out of this series with.