Maple Leafs must add proven defenders, move on from all-offence identity

Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner field questions about the Toronto Maple Leafs Game 5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, visibly frustrated by the result as they try to wrap their heads around it.

TORONTO — Uncle.

Enough.

It’s time.

The Toronto Maple Leafs need defencemen.

Plural.

And, God bless Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, but they need some defencemen who are proven.

Yes, that means they might cost more than $700,000. Yes, that means subtracting some cap-allotted dollars from the most expensive forward brigade in the sport.

Do you know what the NHL’s top nine defensive teams (by goals allowed per game) in 2019-20 all have in common?

They’re all alive and well in the playoffs. The real ones that start Tuesday. That group includes the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Do you know what the bottom 10 defensive teams in 2019-20 all have in common?

They’re all eliminated. That group includes the Maple Leafs, who lost Sunday’s decisive Game 5 by a score of 3-0.

They were also up 3-0 in a pivotal Game 3 and could not lock it down.

We’ve beat this drum before, like on the night Mitch Marner signed a contract rich enough to give Kyle Dubas’s lottery-bound squad the top three highest-salaried forwards in hockey. But circumstances have changed.

First and foremost, Dubas’s hefty financial commitments to John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Marner were all made on the (very reasonable) assumption that the salary cap would not only continue to rise with each passing Canada Day but that it could take a dramatic spike when the next U.S. broadcast deal kicked in.

That, of course, is no longer the case. The cap will remain flat until the virus decides otherwise.

Second, instead of taking a step forward, the Leafs — as a whole — have stumbled back. More than half the NHL is still bubbled up and battling for the Stanley Cup. They are not.

The Nazem Kadri trade, though explainable at the time, was a whiff. When push came to shove, rookie coach Sheldon Keefe took Tyson Barrie off the No. 1 power-play unit and replaced him with Morgan Rielly. Alexander Kerfoot’s third line wasn’t awful, but he and Kasperi Kapanen were both handed nice raises last summer. Neither scored a playoff goal, despite Keefe’s proclamation that he expected production throughout the lineup.

During the regular season, Toronto has been one of the most dangerous clubs at even strength that money can buy.

The post-season is a different beast. One that has gnawed on this core for four years in a row, no matter who’s behind the bench or how much ice time the stars are handed.

As the buzzer sounded in their hollow home Sunday night and Toronto joined the budget-conscious, punchline Florida Panthers as the only two franchises of the salary-cap era yet to survive a single playoff series, a few snapshots spoke volumes:

• A white-knuckle sequence in the D-zone where both Tavares and Matthews were scrambling around without sticks in their hands, trying to get into shot lanes.

• Matthews, Marner and Tavares bent over their sticks, gasping for breath after playing 21-plus minutes apiece and still failing to score a fourth even-strength goal for Toronto over five games.

• A dour Matthews — arguably the series MVP in a losing cause — bluntly saying he didn’t have an answer for the trend he saw in the core’s 0-for-4 performance in elimination series.

• And Keefe praising the Blue Jackets’ forwards for being so good. The coach also brought up luck, which is seldom a good look. 

“A little more luck, and it might be a different result,” Keefe said, noting his team scored on fewer than two per cent of its shots 5-on-5.

Because Dubas built his roster as the counter argument to “defence wins championships,” Keefe spent three months of quarantine and the entirety of reset camp tweaking his system and urging his players to buy into improved own-zone play by all five guys.

For the most part, it worked. The Leafs did a decent job keeping Columbus out of the danger areas and shut the Jackets out in Game 2. Yet it came at the expense of their identity, their strength.

The roster isn’t balanced, so it has fallen to two coaches and some ill-equipped personnel to mask that imbalance.

“I’ll be thinking about this one for a while,” a sombre Keefe said post-game.

The Leafs will pack their Louis bags and carry a 5-on-5 goal drought of 182:46 worth of game clock into 2020-21.

With no Plan B when the sticks go cold, a desperate Keefe tried to make William Nylander a centre. He bumped one of the game’s best forecheckers, Zach Hyman, to Line 2, and stacked his top line. He threw surprise Andreas Johnsson into the mix, even though the winger hadn’t played since before Valentine’s Day.

The coach second-guessed his own decisions and deviated from the centre depth that was supposed to attack in unrelenting waves.

That’s what solid, committed defences do to their opponents. They frustrate them. Make ’em blink.

“We can’t lose sight of who we are as a team,” Keefe said prior to Game 1, prophetically. “We need to be really good offensively.”

Conversely, John Tortorella’s group rolled out a trusted game plan night after night.

No secrets to the recipe: Hard work. Heart. Two good goalies. And plenty of quality defencemen who couldn’t care less about their point totals.

“We’re not changing,” Tortorella said of Game 4’s epic collapse. “We pissed it away on a couple of bad plays and just within a couple of minutes, [but] we thought we played a good game. We’re going to go play the same way.”

“May the best team win,” Jackets captain Nick Foligno wished pre-game.

It did.

Not only did Toronto’s regular-season deficiencies on the blueline have Keefe and the Leafs second-guessing their own game plan, but the loss of Jake Muzzin — the club’s best pure defender — for Games 3, 4 and 5 underscored an organizational crisis.

If you truly have Stanley Cup expectations, one injured defenceman should not be a critical blow against a middle-of-the-pack opponent.

For 2020-21, Dubas has already committed $52 million to NHL forwards. On defence? Just $15 million.

That gap has to close. The books need a little balance. The Maple Leafs’ blue line is crying for more depth.

It’s time.

Enough.

Uncle.

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