Maple Leafs autopsy thoughts: Where did it go wrong and what's next?

David Amber, Anthony Stewart, and Elliotte Friedman look at what went wrong for the Maple Leafs against the Canadiens and how the team could move forward next season.

By now you know what happened, so I’ll save you the preamble. After waking up this morning thinking about the Leafs (because apparently I hate myself), I’ve got some thoughts to share. Let’s run through five of them, shall we?

1. Generally speaking William Nylander (and Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg) get the 17 min TOI treatment against softer competition to help them thrive, which their respective coaches believe is the best way to get the most out of them. I don’t doubt they’re right, or that they’re at least on to something there.

Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are paid to handle the tougher competition and play more minutes. But I’m sure for Marner (and to a lesser extent Matthews) 25 mins of hard TOI -- particularly over seven games in 12 days -- is just too much. I didn’t see a lack of effort, I saw two guys that just ran out of gas.

But here’s the thing: nobody gets mad at the actual Lamborghini when it runs out of gas. That’s on whoever’s operating the machine, in this case Sheldon Keefe. I think he’s done a good job with their group on the whole, but this is one of the two areas of real coaching critique I have for the demise of this team (the other being the power play, which we’ll get to).

Nylander doesn’t need to play 22 minutes-plus (as he did in Game 7), but I’m sure he could handle a consistent 18-19 minutes per 60 to help bring Marner back to 21-22.

Marner led all NHL forwards in ice time per game this season, playing 22:26 a night. I’m all for going down with the ones who got you there, but adding 2.5 minutes to that per game in the playoffs seemed excessive. (Note: some of that time is overtime-related, but not all. It’s just a ton of ice over a full season and condensed series either way.)

I do want to point out that this is primarily criticism of Marner’s heavy usage (and again, to a lesser extent Matthews, as he played fewer minutes and didn’t look as limited), and not Nylander’s. For all the talk around it while he was on his goal-scoring run, the Leafs’ dynamic Swede ended up having more total ice time than any single forward on the Habs. He was hardly stapled to the bench.

2. Allow me a moment of pure speculation and armchair psychology. The Marner press conference after the game looked utterly painful for him, like he wanted to be defiant (it was on the fringe and he seemed to be fighting it) but halfway knew he hadn’t done enough to deserve the tone. In most circumstances he seems like a fun, talented guy, but also like one who’s probably gotten his way most of his life, and hasn’t had many uncomfortable moments. The scars of life are real, and in some cases necessary to help make us better people and players. Those games, and that presser too, felt like moments that will leave some lasting marks on him.

3. Speaking of scars, I wonder how much of the narrative of “good in the room” gets shoveled into the trash with this Leafs team. I guess they didn’t think they had it “in the room” in the past, and boy, were the additions of Jumbo Joe, Nick Foligno, Wayne Simmonds and others sold as part of the fix there. The players told us it was, that they loved their group, and surely it’s part of why they were so heart-broken post-game. I’m sincere when I say that I’m sure the room was awesome.

To be fair here, they did show some resiliency as a group, battling back from down 3-0 in Game 5 and 2-0 in Game 6, but in the end it wasn’t enough.

I can’t help but wonder if in future years they revert back to something I’ve always thought: you can’t import character around a team’s core and change the team’s DNA. The character of the core is the character of the core, and having strong confident personalities around the fringes is great, but it’s Marner and Matthews and Nylander going over the boards in the big moments, not Thornton or Foligno or Simmonds.

I don’t think the character of the Leafs’ core is an issue. The point is that bringing in people around it doesn’t alter what your team really is, so get the best players and accept that the team belongs to the players who play the minutes. If you don’t think those players have “it,” well, then you’ve got bigger problems to address.

4. The Leafs were unlucky to lose John Tavares a few shifts into Game 1 of this series, and if we’re being real, a healthy No. 91 would’ve likely been enough to push them over the hump in such a tight series. So, you can view that as bad luck, or view it as a flaw of the team’s construction. When you invest in, and rely so heavily on, just a few players you’re at risk of a single injury badly kneecapping your team and taking you from quite good to average.

The salary cap is forcing teams into a situation where this will be more common. Teams will have players who get paid, players who make the minimum, and just a few in between. When you lose the guys who get paid, it’s gonna hurt. But not every team will accept that as a strategy, and so I do think it’s a fair criticism of teams who decide to go that route.

Now, does that mean that next year they can’t have better injury luck and can’t have it all work out fine and dandy … of course it doesn’t mean that. But it’s a weakness, and one that ended up taking them out in 2021.

5. I’m curious how the power play decision-making shook out in the coaches office, and it’s something I think fans deserve more answers on. Initially the plan was for Manny Malhotra to run it, and as far as I know, nothing changed there. But I’ve been on Keefe’s staff in the AHL when the PP has struggled, and his involvement in it gets ramped up each game the team doesn’t score. As slumps go on he’ll all but take it over, talking through the decision-making with the PP coach but making the final calls himself.

I want to know how it shook out amongst the coaches, because it was a travesty and never got better. Marner played over 60 games on PP1 flank this year and never once scored. That’s almost hard to accomplish. Morgan Rielly is a talented offensive player, but with slight flaws there: his vision gets called into question and he doesn’t have a big shot, which makes him a poor QB. Thornton was no help (particularly on recoveries) and still saw real minutes there. They’re still setting up in a 1-3-1 despite a dearth of shooters, their breakouts and entries struggled, I mean … overall percentages and chance-creation be damned, it looked really bad when they needed it most, and they have the talent to make it better.

6. Finally, what now?

I’m on team “Don’t entirely blow it up,” with the obvious caveat of “Of course listen to what other teams have to offer.” There’s no doubt this is a flawed group, but flawed groups win Cups too (isn’t it shocking to hear someone say that head on?), and I just don’t see a way they improve by trading one of their core forwards. And of course by “one of their core forwards” I mean “Mitch Marner,” who everyone is talking about here in the wake of his poor playoff performance and big salary.

Teams are almost never made better by trading prime-aged stars. There’s also the example of the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA, who at once had James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant all pre- or early-prime. They blew it up after a few frustrating playoff performances, not being able to get over the hump. Then all those players got a tiny bit better, and now everyone would love to know if that group could have won a title together. Maybe they would have, maybe not, but their fans sure would’ve loved seeing them try. They haven’t been close since, and I’m guessing that’s been less hopeful and fun.

Next year the Leafs are into the dead-on peak of the core of this team, hopefully before Tavares has aged too far out of his. I think you have to move on from Freddy Andersen and re-sign Zach Hyman (fingers-crossed Campbell can repeat this year’s showing), and get to work piecing in around that group. In terms of youth, they need Nick Robertson to become a contributor, they need Rasmus Sandin to take over PP1 and log bigger minutes, and they need to mostly move on from the older guys they brought in who aren’t named Spezza and maybe Bogosian.

I say maybe because Travis Dermott doesn’t cost much and looks ready for a bigger role, so I’d want to keep him protected from Seattle (that maybe means exposing Kerfoot, who’s a nice player but would certainly free up more money for the Leafs, and someone has to go). Keeping Dermott would require Bogosian be willing to take a lesser role (that makes seven good D-men, as they had in this playoff run), which doesn’t seem entirely likely.

That brings me to Rielly, who contributes, has a cheap deal, and might be the guy to go if someone has to go. If he does go, maybe Bogosian comes back into play as part of the Leafs main six.

That Rielly money would be super-valuable to the team in terms of directions they could take things. Yes, he was good enough in this playoff run, but there’s no denying he’s been a part of a lot of failed runs now. Dermott and Sandin should get better and be able to take on more, and you have to also consider what you could get back for a guy like Rielly, which at his price would likely be an impressive return. If nothing else, the team should listen on him.

The above thoughts would free up a good amount of money from Andersen, Rielly and Kerfoot, which would really open up fresh opportunities this off-season. There’s a boatload of ways the Leafs can go and just no clear answers yet.

Everyone is frustrated today, and will be frustrated tomorrow, but a panic move in the days to come isn’t the answer. The team isn’t good enough, that’s for sure. But making them worse to scratch the “DO SOMETHING” itch isn’t the answer.

Thanks for taking in all my Leafs content this season. It doesn’t end here, of course, it’s perpetual. But as one season closes and we look to the future, I want you to know I’ve appreciated your reading along the way.

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