“Give them credit. They battled hard. They’re young but they’re strong. They have a very good future. They have good young players and they will be successful in the next year and couple of years.” — Alex Ovechkin, after eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs
For the Capitals, that series marked their ninth playoff appearance in 10 years, but after eliminating Toronto their run ended the same way it did the previous season — a second round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and having a fully loaded lineup, Washington still couldn’t get it done.
They pushed some chips in by trading for Kevin Shattenkirk as a deadline rental and because of the salary cap, weren’t able to return the following season with the same roster, losing such important players as Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. The Caps had earned the distinction of being a team that folded come playoff time and its star, Alex Ovechkin, absorbed most of that criticism.
Of course, they won the Stanley Cup in 2018 and all the naysayers were washed away.
“It helps a lot when your core group of guys stay together and go through that,” Ovechkin said.
“Coaching staff, players and you can see it took us four years with Barry (Trotz) to realize what we had to do. We make mistakes, coaching staff makes mistakes, then when we get a chance to take another level we all came together and it worked.”
The Leafs were in a much different place in 2017. It was their first playoff appearance since 2013 and just their second of the salary cap era. The new roster of hope led by rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were getting their first taste of playoff hockey, so when Toronto was eliminated in six games by the Capitals, everyone just got a pat on the back and an acknowledgment that winning was a long shot anyway.
But they’ve lost in the first round three years in a row now, and another early playoff exit would not be acceptable.
The Maple Leafs are firmly in their Stanley Cup window. Matthews and Marner combined take up more than $22 million in cap space and John Tavares (though out Tuesday) has been added to the roster. Money and term has been invested in their core and with five pro roster blueliners up for unrestricted free agency at season’s end, things won’t get easier to manage from here.
The Leafs aren’t green anymore. They’ve been through it with a collection of their players and made big moves in the past two off-seasons to improve their chances to win it all.
Off to a 6-5-2 start, and hanging on to what would be the second wild-card spot with every team below them holding games in hand, a bit of worry has begun to set in Leafs Nation. It’s frustrating because the belief was it would come easier to this group by now.
“For them, they’re still a young group of guys,” Ovechkin noted. “I hope they’re going to learn, but it’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win a Stanley Cup they have to play differently.”
It’s been well noted that Toronto has taken some lazy stick penalties in the early goings this season, which is not indicative of a disciplined contender completely bought into a team-first concept. They’ve allowed a pile of very early goals, have given away the puck more than just three teams and have had five losses come from blown leads.
But there does appear to be an element of bad luck behind the start, too. They are a bottom-10 team in PDO (98.7), mostly dragged down by a .899 team save percentage at 5-on-5 that will most likely go up with more Frederik Andersen starts. Just last week, Jake Muzzin told our Luke Fox that the sky is, in fact, not falling in Toronto and that ‘We’re OK.’
There are things this team does have to work out, sure. People may be getting tired of hearing this, but, it is still early.
It took Ovechkin 13 years and nine failed playoff runs before he was finally able to lead his team to the Stanley Cup. What the Leafs are experiencing right now is just a small taste of what Ovechkin went through.