TORONTO – There is a document of Toronto Maple Leafs quotes I keep because they are free of clichés. Crystalized nuggets of honesty or insight from the players that might come in handy later.
Jake Muzzin — a cut-to-the-chase brand of guy — plays a starring role in this collection. Muzzin’s raw take from his first interview after 2020’s heartbreaking defeat in the bubble echoes loud at a time like this.
“If we’re not learning from this, we’re really losing,” Muzzin said following the Columbus series. “I hope guys understand that we’ve got to dig in.
“Last year we were right there. This year right there. A bounce here, a bounce there. Maybe some guys, it’s mental. But I believe this team is ready. This group needs to dig in more. That will to win has to burn a little more.”
Again: These are quotes from last summer.
Thing is, until Thursday the Maple Leafs looked like they had learned, top to bottom.
Coach Sheldon Keefe, in his first full year at the helm, implemented a stingier, more connected system and convinced some of the sport’s flashiest talents that backchecking is as cool as lacrosse goals.
It’s been written more than once (guilty as charged) that the 2021 edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs feels different. More consistent. Less fragile.
They sliced through a shortened regular season and set themselves up for home ice through Rounds 1 and 2, minimum, against opponents they’d already beaten often. Superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner exploded for video-game offence and established themselves as two of the best defensive forwards in Canada.
“The expectation within the room was higher,” said Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving member of the losing side. “The goals are higher than what we achieved this year, and it makes the disappointment much worse. We feel it. And we realize that we let an opportunity slip. That’s not acceptable by our standards, and it makes the loss a lot worse than anything we’ve had to deal with before.”
Leafs Nation is used to riding a rickety roller coaster. The fan base is not accustomed to getting suckered by the long con.
Montreal played its game to a tee and won Game 7 on Monday by a score of 3-1.
The Canadiens deserve their fate just as much as the Maple Leafs do theirs.
To sift through the details of defeat — Brendan Gallagher beating Jack Campbell five-hole from distance; Toronto starting flat and digging itself into a third straight multi-goal deficit before Period 3; the Maple Leafs losing the series’ special teams battle to Montreal’s much-derided power play — is to prod at an open wound.
No one was in any mood for an X’s and O’s discussion following the seventh consecutive failure to squash a post-season opponent in an elimination game.
Maybe some guys, it’s mental.
A crushed Campbell beat himself up for the Gallagher miss, calling it the “worst goal of my career.”
Marner, extending his playoff goal drought to 18 games, spoke of all those empty nets missed in a series where he struggled to find his way. The moment looked too much.
Matthews’ team-issued ballcap shaded his eyes when he said: “It’s obviously extremely frustrating just all around.”
The coach decided not to walk into the home dressing room after shaking hands with Winnipeg’s stubborn next challenge.
It’s as if he knew words couldn’t console.
The pain is too fresh and too familiar all at once.
“Our guys were quite devastated,” Keefe said. “Despite not having John [Tavares], despite not having Nick [Foligno, at full health], we were in a good spot and didn’t close it out. We added enough pieces and depth and things like that to be able to deal with those types of situations. There’s zero excuses.”
So, what now? Where do you go from here?
Dubas has forever preached process, that progress is not linear the way fans would prefer it. In other words, that a team which hasn’t won a single series since YouTube was invented could suddenly win four one spring. If you keep betting on talent.
Eager to win during the Matthews-Marner prime, Dubas has also been the spendy type, both in draft capital and literal capital. (The Leafs used up four of their seven 2021 draft picks on this run.) He’s identified needs and gone hunting every summer.
Of that group, Jason Spezza, the best bang-for-your-buck veteran in the league, is worth re-signing. Dubas should take a run at Zach Hyman, too, although the power forward will have tempting suitors elsewhere. Bogosian, 30, certainly earned his $1 million. Would he take that sum short-term again?
The rest will likely walk. And Toronto will lose another useful piece (perhaps Alexander Kerfoot and his $3.5 million AAV?) to Seattle in the expansion draft, freeing up more room to manoeuvre.
Provided Campbell ($1.65 million cap hit) remains the starting goalie, Dubas will have more than enough cash to go on a spree and, once again, assemble a new cast of role players around his stars.
The executive could run it back and hope things will be different in 2022, that Muzzin and Tavares will be healthy, that his pocket aces will hold up.
Or, in a July where some very big fish will be available, Dubas could deviate from the original plan altogether.
The unravelling over the past five days is severe enough to make you at least question the pillars the Maple Leafs have been built upon.